Asking Somebody Out in German: A Not-So Underhanded Lesson in Modal Particles

1. Introduction

A function of German modal particles I have not detailed in the previous writeup is the one of conveying two basic social "mindsets", or "moods", if you will: spontaneity and casualness. As you can imagine, spontaneity and casualness are very useful when asking somebody out, and I will detail this further below.

There is just one significant hurdle: The modal particles typically used to give off a spontaneous mood can sound very insistent, and the ones with a casual mindset may seem a bit apathetic. But there is a solution: Combine a spontaneous and a casual particle! If you do that the right way, you have both the positive functions without the negative side effects. I call that "balancing" of modal particles. Again, as in the previous article, this is my personal view on German modal particles. I haven't read this anywhere, and you will not find this information on Wikipedia.

Since we're having an introductory lesson (and because it fits the situation very well), the casual particle in each example will be "mal" (one time/sometime), and I will only change the first particle, or the one it is being balanced against. To make the scenario simple to talk about, let's give the person you are asking out a gender neutral name, Sasha.

2. The Question

The Spontaneous Way

Lass' uns doch mal zusammen ins Kino gehen!
("Let's whatsoever go to the cinema together sometime!")

This is only recommended if you're already talking regularly to Sasha, as it requires a social context it has to bump off off, ideally the end of an ordinary conversation. "Doch," here best (yet still insufficiently) translated as "whatsoever", is the utter paragon of spontaneity and suggests that you are bringing up something rather unexpected. That is why this option is sound even (and especially) if you've never really flirted with Sasha before.

Don't use "doch" on its own though, since then its spontaneity would seem fairly in-your-face. With "mal" the high level of insistence of "doch" is balanced out properly, with the right amount of casualty. "Doch mal" is also ideal for texting, as long as you've texted before.

The Uncomplicated Way

Willst du einfach mal mit mir ins Kino gehen?
Do you simply want to go to the cinema with me sometime?

"Einfach mal" is a great option if you already have some chemistry with the person you're asking out. Above translated as "simply", the more precise meaning of "einfach" in this context might be "uncomplicatedly" and "uncomplicatingly". This may work in two ways: You are either "uncomplicatedly" taking the next step from where you both already are. Or you are "uncomplicating" your situation, tacitly suggesting you are dissolving tension that might have built up, without being on the nose at all.

The Cautious Way

Möchtest du vielleicht mal mit mir ins Kino gehen?
"Would you maybe like to go to the cinema with me sometime?"

If you are unsure whether Sasha will say yes, you can use this option to soften the blow a bit. You indicate that you are not overly invested in the answer so Sasha should be less reluctant to say no. Since the translation is a fairly common way to ask in English, too, I don't think this one needs a lot of explanation. Note however that the "vielleicht" is typically very opaque. Unless the tone of your voice is anxious, the "maybe" will not really register as an insecure way to ask, and together with the "mal" it sounds rather casual and spontaneous. As such, "vielleicht mal" is always a good choice and does not necessarily sound cautious.

The Creepy Way

Willst du denn mal mit mir ins Kino gehen?
"Would you go to the cinema with me sometime, then?"

There are people who just can't help seeming creepy all the time, and if you are among them, it's perhaps honest not to try and hide it. Do you want to make sure your date will be okay with your ways? Then use "denn mal"! The context "denn" requires is very specific, as it means the subject is clear, there is just one piece of information missing. That's where the creeping comes in, as you will need to direct the topic of conversation to a point where your question is just looking to fill in one more blank. So, make them say they enjoy going to the cinema. Does Sasha also like going to the cinema with you? Find out! Notably, "denn mal" is the option listed here that sounds the least spontaneous and only fake casual, but that should be clear from the explanation.

The Casual Way

Wir könnten eigentlich mal zusammen ins Kino gehen.
"We could actually go to the cinema together sometime."

This option of course is so casual that you are not even actually asking a question. You may use it when you have a high level of self confidence (or perhaps if you like to pretend having it) about the situation, and if Sasha is the kind of person who likes that. "Eigentlich mal" can make you seem pretty cool, but also pretty distant: As mentioned in the introduction, the modal particles with a casual vibe can sound a bit apathetic, and here you are combining two of them.

You can however add balance by adding more modal particles, and actually, "eigentlich mal" might be a little less common in this context than "eigentlich ja mal" or "eigentlich doch mal", or even "eigentlich ja doch mal" (actually yes indeed sometime). The additional modal particles add a little more spontaneity, and therefore balance, to the mix. But we'll save examples for combining more than two modal particles for some later time.

3. Epilogue

Don't take this "lesson" too seriously. This is about demonstrating that modal particles can be very useful for finding the right tone in social situations. I doubt there is anybody that will not go out with you because you have used the wrong modal particles, or change their mind because of it. But using the modal particles that best fit the situation will make you look more confident and sound, and making the tone fit the situation is often all you need to avoid it feeling all too awkward.

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