You can say you to me: Formal language is serious business in Germany

„You can say you to me“ – legend has it that German chancellor Helmut Kohl made this generous offer to US president Ronald Reagan during the negotiations of Germany’s reunification. The truth of this is a bit questionable, given that Kohl’s reputation of being daft didn’t match his political track record. But what is it about? Germans have two different ways of addressing each other – the formal “Sie” and the informal “Du”, and choosing the right one is a matter of politeness. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Starting to learn English in school, the proper way to address teachers was – of course – the formal one. My English teacher, Frau Loof, was a classy lady of advanced age (or so it felt back then, in hindsight she might have been just in her mid-thirties), and addressing her as “you” was an odd feeling. At least we called her “Mrs Loof”, which helped a little. Years later, while I lived in Estonia, I was denied even this comfort. Many Estonians speak perfect German, but refuse to use “Sie”. My doctor, for example, used the informal “Du” during the whole time, and I faced the same dilemma with the police officer who had to tell me that I indeed was at fault after crashing my car in the wintery streets of Tallinn. Her German was flawless, but she insisted on staying “per Du”. For German ears, this is not necessarily friendly. It tends to feel as if professionalism is missing from the conversation. It was an awesome experience that showed me once more how much language forms habits and opinions.

Respect and distance

Formal language demonstrates seniority, both in terms of age and hierarchy, but even more important is the fact that it maintains distance. The German need for distance can be difficult to grasp for Britons and Americans at times. It shows in many ways, for example in the use of the word “friend”. Being called a friend in Germany suggests a close relationship of some kind, Germans distinguish between Freund (a close friend), Bekannter (a distant friend or acquaintance), Kollege (a colleague at work), Kumpel (a buddy or a pal). This goes so far that even the Lebensgefährte (the “life mate”, the partner) is simply ”my friend”, not a boyfriend or a girlfriend, which can sometimes lead to confusion.

Switching from formal “Sie” to informal “Du” is a valued privilege, much more than being on “first name basis” in English. This, by the way, is also an option in Germany, and addressing each other with the first name can still be combined with the formal “Sie”.

I remember when my former boss and mentor offered me to switch to “Du”, it was quite an honour. “Don’t forget”, he said, “it is much easier to say Du Idiot than to say Sie Idiot.” The swear words are not the important part of this tip. Formal language creates emotional distance, and that makes emotional outbreaks less likely in everyday communication.

The magical word „man“

This article wouldn’t be complete without a third form to address others: Man. It might or might not be related to the English word “man”, and it is pronounced exactly the same way as the German word “Mann” (which again translates to “man”). It does not mean the same, though.

“Man” is used whenever something should be done, or someone should take responsibility, but nobody actually wants to do it. Examples include “This is an important issue. Man should look into it” or “That should have been known to man”, or maybe “Can man do something about that?”

“Really, man could have known that!” (Das hätte man wissen können!) is a well-known summary when things really went South.

As un-German as it gets, “man” is a word full of magic, taking responsibility off the individual, passing it on into the void. The English “someone” can’t really replace it, and nothing can be done about it. “Da kann man nichts machen.”

Du, Sie, or man? – Which noteworthy experiences have you made with the German variety of addressing each other? Please share in the comments.

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