Should you be asking someone’s age?

Happy Birthday

Photo credit: Jonas Humbel

Is it still impolite to ask about someone’s age? In the USA at least, your date of birth is of secondary importance when it comes to getting to know people or job hunting. This is clearly not the case in Germany.

Data protection is serious business to the Germans. I had certainly noticed this by the time I was receiving my first friend requests on Facebook and discovered some strange aliases. This stands in contrast to Germans’ passion for facts, which is generally directly formulated. If you ask John to introduce himself, he is sure to give personal details: “My name is John Doe, I’m 35 and I come from Hamburg.”

As an American, I’m always surprised how early on age appears in this verbal data package. It’s like a football player reading out his collector’s card: “Thomas Müller, 30, Bayern München, 100 international matches.” This is great information for statistics fans, but is it information that actually helps us to get to know Thomas Müller?

This often reminds me of “The Little Prince”. In it, the author says, “Grown-ups like numbers. […] They ask: ‘How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only then do they think they know him.”

However, I now value Germans’ directness. Getting straight to the point can save time and prevent misunderstandings in a number of different situations. But I don’t understand why people here find age so interesting. I know people in their mid-thirties who still behave like (or still are) students, and others in their mid-twenties who seem to have no time for youthful foolishness.

The amount of information one gains by learning someone’s age is therefore minimal, especially when the people are standing in front of you. In the worst case scenario, the drawer flies open and the preconceptions come out: “You couldn’t possibly know that yet” or “That comes with experience” on one hand, and “When are you getting married?” or “Have you thought about kids yet?” on the other.

In the USA, these preconceptions are regarded as problematic, especially in the world of work. When you apply for a job here, your photo, age, nationality, marital status and religion are not included on your CV. An invitation to attend an interview should be made solely on the basis of one’s qualifications and professional experience. Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen, but at least it is recognised that people cannot provide this information without assumptions being made about them.

Although Germans are very direct, even they do not generally ask certain things. These include questions about how people have voted or what they earn. I think this is appropriate, and put questions concerning age in the same category. If you know someone, it is in fact interesting to know how they vote, what they earn or how old they are. But this information shouldn’t influence other people’s first impressions of them.

This fixation on age could have you making an embarrassing mistake in other countries. If you find yourself among English speakers, you can expect the reaction to the question of how old they are to fall somewhere between offended and bemused (especially among women). Anyone whose curiosity gets the better of them should be prepared to answer a question in return: “How old do you think I am?” You might think that giving as accurate an answer as possible is the right way to go, but the truth is that you have already made a misstep.

My response is usually: “Old enough.” If this isn’t enough of a hint, I explain as kindly as possible that it’s not something we often discuss where I come from and that I’d therefore prefer to change the subject.

So next time you are speaking to someone, simply ask how they are or ask about their interests. This usually leads to enjoyable conversations. Did you know, for example, that Thomas Müller breeds horses and has published a children’s book? Even footballers are more than just numbers.

By the way, if you are applying for a job or looking to recruit personnel in Germany or an English-speaking country, we would be happy to advise you.

Kayla Hirsch

Kayla Hirsch
Translation Editor & Consultant

Kayla is from the Southeast of the US, where she earned degrees in political science and German studies. She loves traveling, and she lived in Washington, D.C., Berlin and Nuremberg before she decided to settle in Hamburg. In her free time, she’s usually watching films or reading; at EnglishBusiness she’s an expert on translation and proofreading. You’ll find articles from her here on all things linguistics and written communication.

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