Du or Sie? A tale of awkwardness

Sprechen Sie Du?

What happens when a sort-of German dude, softened by years of Californian informality, returns to Germany and encounters the natives?

Why, it’s friggin’ awkward, of course. Just one aspect: When meeting different kinds of people, should I use Sie or Du, the formal or the informal version of “you”?

The resulting contortions, as I tell them in The Economist’s sister publication Intelligent Life, are meant to be amusing. So go be amused, please, and have compassion with me.

(BTW, the English “you” is actually the formal second person, which completely replaced the informal “thou” centuries ago.)

37 thoughts on “Du or Sie? A tale of awkwardness

  1. By the way, I’m here at Luke AFB in the Phoenix area where tonight, my nephew graduates from F-16 combat fighter school and is on his way to Aviano AFB in Italy. He and I had a long talk last night; he is now reading Hannibal and Me!

    • Well, it’s a thrill that he’s reading Hannibal and Me! Thank you.

      And what a Top Gun career. So he’ll be flying, as did Yossarian, American jets out of an Italian base? That needs to be chronicled.

      (PS: didn’t even know the Yanks still had Italian bases.)

  2. A vexing problem indeed. Ich wünsche ihm jedenfalls viel Erfolg bei der Bewältigung des Sie/Du Dilemmas in seinem derzeitigen Residenzland. Bedenke er aber immer eines: “Du Trottel” sagt man schneller als “Sie Trottel.” (At least that has always been the most frequently invoked justification in favor of maintaining the V-T distinction in my particular neck of the German-speaking woods.)

    • Well, this gives me the opportunity to mention that an entire paragraph on the Austrian extension of same-said dilemma was cut due to space constraints.

      But honestly, what are those Viennese types thinking, going around mixing it up like that: “Du, Herr Geheimrat…”, “Also Wasti, Sie hoam doch nett…”

    • I’d be curious as to the rationale behind using the 3rd person plural as the formal form of direct address (“How are They, Herr Kluth?” meaning “How are you, Mr Kluth?”) as opposed to the 2nd person pluralis majestatis, such as the vous in French, and the Ihr/Euch as can be heard in some of the Winnetou movies (“Habt Ihr nicht gehört, Mister? Ihr sollt Euer Gewehr fallen lassen!”).

      In fact, in English, no 2nd person singular exists. The 2nd person plural (using the plural verb “are”), which corresponds to the old-fashioned formal Ihr/Euch address in German rather than to the informal singular “du,” is all there is.

    • “…..in English, no 2nd person singular exists……”.

      I’m not so sure. Since the plural for “you” used to be “ye”, would it be too much to assume that “you” was always singular?

      Anyway, “y’all” fits the bill perfectly for today’s plural “you”.

    • Standing by itself, the word “you” looks as if it could be either singular or plural. Trouble is, “you” takes a plural verb (“you are”), which indicates there is no singular “you” in English and that addressing individuals in plural is really the only way to address them.

  3. Great story. Believe it or not I was thinking of you and this issue on our recent trip in NZ. I encountered an uber Prussian German tourist and was thinking that you might be encountering the type on a a more regular basis and that it might be interesting to hear your reactions to moving back to Germany after your soujourn in the State of Mind Known as California. Are there more culture shocks than du and sie?

    • Yes, there are lots more cultures shocks like that, even when bracketing out the all-important category of traffic behavior. I better not get started now and here.

      But do regale us with just a few bits of the Kiwi ueber-Prussian tourist. I want to be enraged with you.

    • Let’s just say it had to do with Lebensraum in a campground kitchen which was to be shared by all. And by Lebensraum I refer to ownership of parking lot space, counter top space, stove and oven space, the TV remote, and ambient sound as he and his wife carried on an extended and animated conversation while he was in the kitchen and she was in the lounge. Imagine a cross between Gordon Ramsay and Heinz Guderian. .

  4. If you’ve read the Lord of the Rings, you might have noticed in the third book a tense confrontation between Gandalf and the increasingly unbalanced ruler of Gondor, Denethor.

    Gandalf, striving to be polite, address Denethor with, “you”. The dismissive Denethor address Gandalf as “thou”.

    To a modern English speaker like me “thou” sounds more formal, and the effect is somewhat subverted.

    • I’ve not read it, I confess. But Tolkien was first and foremost a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, so he must have known exactly what he was doing….

  5. Good piece in Intelligent Life, and a fascinating topic overall.

    Based on my very limited internet exchanges in French with with native French speakers,
    the twenty-somethings use “tu” even with older strangers they don’t personally know (such as myself), but the older ones use “vous” in the same circumstance.

    May I assume a similar dynamic would apply were I to exchange internet pleasantries in German with native German-speakers?

    Although we English-speakers generally use only the matey “you” when addressing each other, we nonetheless when addressing someone we dislike intensely, sometimes use the very formal “Sir”, so to send to the disliked other the implicit message of emotional distance.

    • Yes, you may indeed assume that as a general rule. Unfortunately, it breaks down when applied in specific situations of a sensitive nature — ie, when things go wrong.

      So yes, in Berlin (but less in Munich), people below 50 of the same generation might now say Du. But not when there is any risk of things hitting the fan. A friend of mine had house construction done, and still regrets starting with the workers as Du. When they botched the job, it made everything more awkward ….

  6. Oh, I’m rolling. American to my bones, I first encountered the issue of the second person in high school French (I doodled a cartoon in my notebook margins of a much disrupted bed under whose commotious coverings nothing emerged but a couple of feet and the speech balloon: “Tu peux me tutoyer”). The ex-pat Germans with whom I sang Brahms and Wagner for four or five years had become quite Americanised; only our choir director, a German-fluent Japanese lady, was baffled by the problem of how to address people. But it took the opera “Rosenkavalier,” of all things, to make me understand the true mine-field of formality and its opposite.

    I have found though, in later life, that I positively enjoy addressing just about anyone as M’am or Sir, or referring to them as a lady or a gentleman. Eyes light up and warmth occurs. I think America has been a little too informal for way too long, in the way of the car salesman and the talk show host.

  7. Very amusing. Is your delightful piece a caricature or not? You will recall Bettina Brettano’s description of an incident when Beethoven and Goethe were out walking together in Teplitz in 1812:

    As they were walking together, Beethoven and Goethe crossed paths with the empress, the dukes and their cortege. So Beethoven said to Goethe: Keep walking as you did until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around. Goethe thought differently; he drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes and their cortege, barely miming a saluting gesture. They drew aside to make way for him, saluting him friendlily. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him: ” I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too great an esteem to those people.”

    Apparently, after this Goethe never replied to Beethoven’s letters.

  8. When Milton Friedman took skiing lessons in the company of Bill Buckley, the ski instructor insisted on addressing Friedman as “Milt”. Buckley thought this the equivalent of addressing Albert Einstein as “Al”.

  9. I’ve tried avoiding second person pronouns, by the way. As if everybody doesn’t know what you’re doing. It’s pretty laughable.

    By the way, Intelligent Life is killer for me. Link after link after link…and there goes my morning. This time, it’s several views–starting with P.D. James–of Mr. Darcy. (Mine, unsolicited–and still mostly unwritten–is about how I went to school with a boy named Darcy, named after Mr. Darcy. Seriously.)

    Then, there’s a really charming piece about a Yeats collection that could be mine for just $750,000. And it ends with a few lines from “The Scholars,” the kinds of Yeats everybody loves. So good.

    Your piece surprised me. The end is one of those unexpected moments that make me feel good about America, in a way that pieces meant to make me feel good about America never do.

    • Good to know that I can leave people feeling good, too. My range is thus broader than I had suspected.
      Since you like Intelligent Life so much: I’m writing another, and much bigger and more soulful (moving, I hope) piece for it, for either the next issue or the one after that. I’m looking forward to that more than to anything else in my bag right now…

  10. Hamlet initially addresses is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with “thou”:

    “My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do you both?”

    but soon adopts “you”:

    “Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me. Come, come—nay, speak.”

    It’s the opposite with Horatio—initially we get:

    “And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?”

    whereas by mid-play:

    “Nay, do not think I flatter,
    For what advancement may I hope from thee
    That no revenue hast but thy good spirits
    To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter’d?
    No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
    And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
    Where thrift may follow fawning….
    Give me that man
    That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
    In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
    As I do thee.”

    And by play’s end:

    “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
    Absent thee from felicity a while,
    And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
    To tell my story.”

    Centuries later Emily Dickinson could still find a use for “thee”:

    “Wild nights! Wild nights! 
    Were I with thee, 
    Wild nights should be 
    Our luxury!

    “Futile the winds 
    To a heart in port, 
    Done with the compass, 
    Done with the chart.

    “Rowing in Eden! 
    Ah! the sea! 
    Might I but moor 
    To-night in thee!”

  11. I (German and Swiss) ended up talking in English with fellow countrymen for very similar reasons and in similar situations Andreas Kluth describes here. His observations are spot on.

    Believe it or not, we Germans came a long way. When I apprenticed in an public office about 25 years ago, people around thirty who shared an office for ten years or more still Siezed each other. In more social settings with drinks they loosened up a bit, only to nervously revert to Sie in the of the office the next day.

    Peter Practice

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