As most languages probably do, German has an abundance of greetings to use in person, for various occasions, social structures or even the region you’re in, and it might go very badly if they are used in the wrong set up.
Good ones to use in pretty much any situation are the standard ones relating to the time of the day. Apply different tones if necessary.
You know, grumpy on Monday morning, cheerful on Friday afternoon, sombre at funerals, etc…
Guten Morgen! – Good Morning!
Guten Abend! – Good evening!
You may have noticed that I didn’t put an expression for Good afternoon! here.
That one IS a little tough because we don’t really have one. We have Guten Tag!
That translates to Good day! and is usually used in the afternoon. In Bavaria it is actually frowned upon by the more traditionally minded people.
Also, if said in a dismissive tone both Guten Abend and Guten Tag can be the conversational equivalent of hanging up the phone on someone. A very sarcastic “Have a nice day!”.
Don’t worry though, in most situations a cheeful Guten Tag! when starting a conversation or entering a shop will not get you beaten up.
When adressing a stranger in the street or a shop attendant sorting shelves because you need directions, you might not want to use one of these but start with Entschuldigung or Entschuldigen Sie bitte which translates to Pardon/Excuse me in that context.
Now in the southish regions of Germany, south of the Main river, which for that reason is also called the Weisswurstäquator, the proper greeting is Servus, from the latin word for servant. It originated as something like I am at your service but is really just a friendly greeting or goodbye. Going further south this will often change to Grüß Gott!
This literally translates to Give god my regards! which has led to the popular elevator joke reply “Sorry, I’m not going up that high” or the reply in any situation: “Will do, if I meet him.”
Same here: It doesn’t really mean anything anymore, it originated from Grüß dich Gott!, which is kind of a blessing. It’s also used by a lot of Atheists, except maybe the petty ones.
Grüß dich! = Greet you can be used pretty universally, the further south you go, the more contracted it may get. In Switzerland it becomes one word: Gruezi!
That often will be contracted to ‘zi!
A Bavarian good-bye is fierti which is short for fiert di Gott or Führt dich Gott in high German.
That translates to may god lead you, but usually it is said with as much religious intent as the average English bless you when someone sneezes.
Another special adress is high up in the north, beyond the wa…wait, wrong word.
In Northern Germany (and, interestingly enough, in Luxembourg and parts of Switzerland, too) the standard greeting for any time of the day can be a variation of Moin!
Moin is a variation of the German word Morgen (meaning Morgen in this context, but also tomorrow).
The usage varies. In some regions it is Moin! in others Moin moin! and then again in some places the one going first is supposed to say Moin! to which the appropriate reply will be Moin moin!
Some make a difference depending if it is used as a greeting or a farewell.
Moin moin will be understood in most parts of Germany, mostly without your conversation partner batting an eye. Well. Maybe not in Bavaria.
A colloquial greeting that is used when friends or coworkers pass each other around noon is Mahlzeit! Some people use it all day round, some people are immensely annoyed by that or by the use of the word as a greeting at all.
It is usually not the start of a conversation but more an acknowledgement. Yes, I saw you, I’m polite, you’re here, I noticed you, hi there.
The word Mahlzeit literally translates to mealtime and is also a German word for a meal. So it’s could be translated to “happy lunchbreak”.
The word mahlen being the word for to grind has led to the humorous reply Mahl dir deine Zeit doch selbst.
Go grind your own time.
A very popular use at the workplace is this: A coworker – preferably one who is chronically late – comes in shortly after they’re supposed to be. When they cheerfully go Guten Morgen a well-placed Mahlzeit! lets them know that you are well aware of them being late.
Wait, all that’s to complicated? Fine. Around friends and coworkers just say Hi!
Works in German as well as in English. If that’s not formal enough, a cheerful Hallo! will do.
You can also observe people saying Und? ( And?) to each other, which actually would prompt them to tell you how they are or what they are doing. It’s the German equivalent to ‘sup?
Or, as the people in my home village say: Öp!
And nobody knows what the hell that originally meant.