Wednesday, November 16, 2011

formalities: du and Sie

So tonight I went to another cooking class at the VHS, and it started with this strange little scene:

The chef/instructor: "First things first. Some of you I know from other classes, some of you are new...Is it okay with all of you (Sie), that we use the du (you) form?"
General consensus: "Ja, klar..."
And so we proceeded to call him "Sven" and call each other by our first names. 

The German polite you (Sie) and informal you (du) have loose boundaries in certain kinds of settings, such as community ed classes, apparently. It's interesting, because if these same people were to encounter one another outside of this setting, they would obviously use the Sie form. Because I'm a foreigner, and a German instructor, I am hyper-aware of whether I am being gesiezt or geduzt, and I'm always trying to figure out these patterns. But it's hard, because there are no real rules, although there are general rules: Sie = everyone over 18, older people, work/professional settings, du = children, animals, family members, God, people your age if you are young. But you can also use the Sie form to create distance, or be extra polite and show respect. On the other hand, store clerks or restaurant servers who are trying to be young and hip and will use du. And there are settings where it feels strange that they use Sie (I happened to hear in an episode of The X Files that the German voices for Mulder and Scully say "Sie" to each other...although they use their last names, they are very close colleagues and this translation decision really surprised me!) It's fun to watch dubbed American films and wait for the moment where the characters switch from the Sie to the du...usually a romantic scene is involved...

One other big difference between the States and Germany: In the US, people use their first names much more often. Good example: they have their first names on their name tags in stores. You call your server by his/her first name, and, for example, at the grocery checkout (bank counter, too?) they wear tags with first names. In Germany it will say "Frau Müller" or just "Schmidt", or whatever, NO first names!

But because educated Germans are aware of how it is in the States, I have had two "offers" to use the du form when it probably would have been inappropriate (too early) in German. In traditional German culture, switching from the Sie to the du form includes drinking Bruderschaft and is a big milestone.

One other random thing, respect-related, which I find totally endearing. In Germany, they knock on the table/desk instead of clapping as the gesture of applause. At the end of every lecture, the professor gets a round of knocking on desks. Sometimes they will clap as well (at talks/conferences), but I love the sound of the lecture hall filled with knocking. It's so German...

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