Word of the Day – “verhalten”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: October 26, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day, this time with a look at the meaning of

verhalten

And verhalten is actually a really useful word, because not only is it one of the German words for behaving, it’s also the base for das Verhältnis, which is all about relations and relationships.

Today, we’ll explore how these meanings came to be and we’ll learn how to use the words, especially sich verhalten with the weird self reference thing, because it’s kind of a must have.
“Hey and can we talk about the difference between Beziehung and Verhältnis as well?”
Oh, absolutely!  We will also talk about the difference between Verhältnis and Beziehung.
“OMG, that’s amazing! I literally can’t wait.”
Haha, glad you’re so excited.
“No, seriously. I have Macrophobia.”
Oh… I… well, no problem, though, because we’ll jump right in now!

So, verhalten means to behave. Or we should say sich verhalten, because it only works with that stupid self reference that no one needs.
“I need it!”
Yes, right. Sorry, German. YOU need it, of course. This is ALL about YOU, right? Oh German, always has to be the center of attention.
“Wait, I’m the language you’re learning….”
Hmm… meh… I guess you’re right.
Anyways, so… sich verhalten means to behave in the more general sense of acting. And the first question is of course why it has that meaning.

And it’s actually not that big of a stretch. halten itself is about holding, and at least to me, “holding oneself” does kind of make sense as a figurative expression for behavior. Like… in English, there’s the phrasing to carry oneself a certain way, which is not exactly the same meaning, but definitely the same idea. Same for the verb to comport, which is also based on the idea of carrying (portable, export, import,…).
And also the verb to behave itself is kind of down the same line of thought…. it’s “to have” with the super vague be-prefix, so in essence, you “have yourself” a certain way.

So yeah, “holding oneself” as an expression for behavior is really not that far out there. What does the ver- do exactly?
Well, it does make sense with its restrictive notion of away… like, you’re holding yourself back, restricting your urges, if you will.
But it also fits with its notion of for/toward. You “hold yourself toward” a situation.

If you’re now like “Hey, these notions of ver- sound really interesting, I didn’t know these.” then I highly recommend my two part article on the prefix ver-. I’ll leave a link below.

But yeah… sich verhalten is kind of similar to carrying oneself, just way more broad and general.

Time for examples.

  • Wenn du ein Einhorn siehst, verhalte dich unauffällig.
  • If you see a unicorn, act inconspicuously.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wie verhalte ich mich, wenn ich einen Elefanten im Raum sehe?
  • How do I react/act/behave appropriately if I see an elephant in the room?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Hilfe, meine Katze verhält sich wie meine Ex. Was kann ich machen?
  • Help, my cat behaves/acts like my ex. What can I do?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich habe mich ruhig verhalten.
  • I stayed calm/didn’t act rashly.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

As you can see, the translation depends on the context, and it can be to behave but also to act or even something completely different. But the idea is always how someone, or something, “behaves/acts” in given circumstances.
And it’s quite “neutral” actually, so it’s really not about good or bad behavior. That’s also why it doesn’t work by itself, the way to behave does.

  • Thomas, this is an important investor meeting, so behave please!

And using sich verhalten here would sound incomplete and Thomas would go like “What do you mean? verhalten HOW”.
The better verb for this type of behave is benehmen… or sich benehmen, we should say, because that also has this self reference.

  • Thomas, das ist ein wichtiges Investorenmeeting, also bitte benimm dich!

sich verhalten really is about the general sense of behaving or acting in circumstances and this is also visible in the noun das Verhalten and some other related words.

  • Ich fand dein Verhalten bei der Party gestern sehr respektlos.
  • I thought your behavior at the party yesterday was very disrespectful.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Vor dem Diplomatendinner erklärt der Teamleiter den Kellnern und Kellnerinnen die Verhaltensregeln.
  • Before the dinner of diplomats, the team lead explains the code of conduct / the dos and donts.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Meine Katze ist verhaltensgestört.
  • My cat has a behavioral disorder.
    Lit.: “behavior-disturbed”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And I think we should also mention the adjective/adverb verhalten here.

  • Die Reaktionen der Star Wars Fans auf den neuen Trailer waren eher verhalten.
  • The reactions of the Star Wars fans to the trailer were rather reserved/subdued.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Nach dem Meeting ist das Team verhalten optimistisch, was die Deadline angeht.
  • After the meeting, the team is tentatively optimistic with regards to the deadline.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This is an example for the idea of “holding back oneself”. In fact, when you look up verhalten in a dictionary, you might find to restrain or to curb listed as translations, all without the self reference. At least on dict.cc that’s the case. But I have to say… I have NEVER seen verhalten used in this sense. Like… “I am verhalten someone” in the sense of restraining. I guess I would understand it in context but I would assume it’s some regional usage.

However, there IS a side meaning to sich verhalten which kind of doesn’t really fit in with what we have learned so far. Here’s an example:

  • Wie verhält es sich mit Wasserschaden? Habe ich dann auch Garantie?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Based on what we know, this would translate to “How does it behave with water damage?” but that’s kind of misleading. You see, the es here doesn’t really refer to a specific item. It’s this vague es that we also have in “It rains.”. We could say it refers to “the present” or “reality” or whatever. And what the phrase really means is this:

  • What’s the situation/deal with water damage? Do I have a warranty then as well?

This particular phrasing is actually fairly common, but you won’t really find this use of sich verhalten outside of it, so it’s not really all that useful. I just wanted to mention it because it might be confusing when you see it for the first time and you try to translate it “the normal way” as to behave.
But now that you saw it once, feel free to forget about it. That’s your brain’s job now, not yours.
And when the day comes and you actually encounter it in the wild, your brain will be like:

 

“I know this! It was kinda different or something.”

The next word on the other hand is one that’s very much worth adding to your active vocabulary. The noun das Verhältnis.

The Meanings of “das Verhältnis”

So like we already saw in the intro, das Verhältnis means relationship. And this actually ties in surprisingly well with what we just learned about the meaning of sich verhalten if we think of a relationship as the sum total of how two people behave toward or act around each other.

 

  • Thomas und Marias Bruder haben ein gutes Verhältnis.
  • Thomas and Maria’s brother have a good relationship/get along well.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mein Verhältnis zu meinem Mitbewohner hat in letzter Zeit gelitten.
  • My relationship to my flatmate has suffered recently.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wie ist dein Verhältnis zu deinen Eltern?
  • How’s your relationship with your parents?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Note that the preposition I used is zu… Verhältnis zu. mit can also work, but zu is just more idiomatic overall.
Now, interpersonal relationships are definitely the main use for das Verhältnis, but it’s not limited to that.
Just like in English, you can also have a relationship to a thing or a concept.

  • Ich habe ein schwieriges Verhältnis zu deutscher Grammatik.
  • I have a difficult relationship to  German grammar.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And das Verhältnis is actually also the German word for a ratio… like when you have a recipe and you need 10 parts of high fructose corn syrup, one part of water and 1 ml of lemon juice… that’s a recipe for diabetes, by the way.
But yeah, this kind of ratio is das Verhältnis in German.

  • Ein Radler ist eine Mischung aus Bier und Zitronenlimo im Verhältnis 1:1.
  • A Radler is a mix of beer and lemonade at a ratio of 1:1.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Verhältnis zwischen Leuten, die die Werbung gesehen haben, und Leuten, die das Produkt gekauft haben, ist zu schlecht.
  • The ratio between people who saw the ad and people who bought the product is too bad.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And then, last but not least, there’s a special meaning to the plural die Verhältnisse, which is the conditions in a sense of the surrounding conditions (so not conditions of a contract or the condition of an apartment).

  • Die Verhältnisse in dem Flüchtlingslager sind inakzeptabel.
  • The conditions in the refugee camp are unacceptable.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Festival wurde aufgrund schlechter Wetterverhältnisse abgesagt.
  • The festival was cancelled due to bad weather conditions.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas kommt aus einfachen Verhältnissen.
  • Thomas comes from a “simple background“.
    (not sure how to translate this actually. It means his family didn’t have much.)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

If you’re wondering what this meaning has to do with anything… well… it ties in with this weird phrase “wie verhält es sich mit”.

” Oh oh, I know this. that was also about ‘the situation’ or something.”

And that’s exactly it. You can think of “surrounding conditions” as “how the environment/reality behaves”. But I’d also say for this die Verhältnisse… it’s enough if it’s on the pile of passive vocabulary until you’re B2 or C1.

What’s giving you more “native bang” for your “memory buck” is the adverb verhältnismäßig, which means comparatively or relatively. It’s maybe a bit over the top for an A2 student but if you’re B1 and you casually throw it in, your teacher will be very impressed.

  • Das Wetter war für November verhältnismäßig gut.
  • The weather was good for November, relatively speaking.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Test war verhältnismäßig einfach.
  • The test was relatively/comparatively easy.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Cool.
So I think we pretty much covered verhalten and Verhältnis, but of course I’ll keep my promise, so let’s get to the last point for today – the difference between  Verhältnis and Beziehung.
And just so you know right away… this will not be part of the final exam, so don’t worry about it.
“Wait what?!?! There’s a final exam?”
Well… I mean the short quiz at the end of the article. That’s the “final exam”.

The Difference between “das Verhältnis” and “die Beziehung”

So, both das Verhältnis and die Beziehung are translations for the relationship, and when it comes to the general sense of relationships between people, they’re more or less interchangeable.

  • Wie ist deine Beziehung zu deinen Eltern?
    Wie ist dein Verhältnis zu deinen Eltern?
  • How’s your relationship with your parents?

However, there are some differences.
First of, there’s relationship in the romantic sense. And there, word for the “normal” romantic relationship is die Beziehung, while das Verhältnis is specifically an affair, a fling.

  • Thomas und Maria sind in einer Beziehung.
  • Thomas and Maria are in a relationship.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas und Maria haben ein Verhältnis.
  • Thomas and Maria are having an affair.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I should say though that Verhältnis in this sense sounds VERY technical and in many contexts, die Affäre is the better choice. Like… you wouldn’t really talk about an affair you had as a Verhältnis. That’s more lingo for a divorce lawyer for example.
And also, in terms of tone, we could say that in general Beziehung sounds a tad bit more personal than Verhältnis. Like… you can use either word for the relationship between two countries, but Beziehung sounds like there are more points of interaction than Verhältnis.

The more important difference between the two words though is that Verhältnis does NOT work for relationship in the sense of “logical” relationships. Like correlations and causation and such.

  • Der Forscher untersucht die Beziehung zwischen täglicher Arbeitszeit und Produktivität.
  • The scientist researches the relationship between daily work hours and productivity.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Using Verhältnis in a context like this may work, but it also may be confusing, so better stick with Beziehung. Or actually der Zusammenhang, that’s even better.
Just like Konfuzius said:

“Learning German words is like counting leaves in the forest.”

And with these very very encouraging words, I think we’ll wrap it up for the day :).

This was our look at the meaning and use of sich verhalten and das Verhältnis.
If you want to check how much you remember, you can take the “final exam” I have prepared for you.

And as always, if you have any questions about any of this just leave me a comment, and we’ll clear it up together in the comments.
I hope you had a good time and learned something. Have a great week and see you in the next one!

 

further reading:

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