23 January 2009

Du or Sie?

Today both the German and I had what we felt were interesting experiences with the du versus Sie problem.
His experience was a bit more interesting than mine. For the last year he has associated with a person at the client site and in the last three weeks this person has been referring to the German with du, without invitation or acknowledgment. It's all a morass, of course, as the German is younger, but theoretically hierarchically superior and yet outside the hierarchy as an outside consultant. He's been at a loss as to how he should handle the situation, so in a typically German (of his area of Germany at least) manner he has been speaking to his colleague in circumlocutions that have not required him to use either du or Sie. I admire that as i am completely incapable of doing that for even the length of a sentence and he has been able to do it for weeks.
Today however, in a particularly direct exchange, it became impossible to continue in that manner and he stopped, said to the colleague that perhaps they should speak with "thou" and then did that amusing little thing where he held out his hand and introduced himself by his vorname over a handshake. What a relief.

Meanwhile I was home with the girls after school while a heating inspector was checking out our meters and radiator readings. The gentleman was apparently having some sort of problem after I walked him from room to room, and said something to me in a strong Berlin dialect that I didn't understand. I asked him to go more slowly, said that I didn't nderstand, and asked if it was important or if he needed anything. He looked at me and said that he lived in Germany and therefore spoke only German and therefore so should I. I was so upset! There I was, making my best attempt at German, and there he was, being a complete swine.
Flushing with anger (I'm not exagerating), I then used the du form to ask him if I should call my husband or whether he needed anything else before leaving. He said no, then did actually explain that he was not able to find two registers that he was looking for. I switched back to Sie and we concluded his examination and I showed him out.
The really annoying part is that the German says that my calculated insult (the switch to "thou") was surely understood only as ignorance on my part. Darn it.
And if this is how someone who is "white" and without a strong accent is treated, I have a good understanding of how others are.


Anonymous said...

Been here 11 years, consider myself fluent, yet still mix up the Sie and Du when I'm not watching it. Totally normal for English-speakers.

G in Berlin said...

Ian, I quite frequently mix the forms by accident (a reult of using only du in class, I'd guess), but this was an attempt at deliberate rudeness that failed:(.
Oh well. Next time I will use the phrases the German taught me last night, that request he leave my home in excruciatingly polite detail. Or revert to calling the German and have him do that.

honeypiehorse said...

When Ralf introduced me to his parents I had to speak without using 'you' for about a year before they finally invited me to call them Du. My German boyfriend (now husband) was no help at all navigating this and it was very awkward. I fall back on Sie in most cases but there are people you just can't call Sie and I always think they're mad at me for using Du. Whereas my husband seems to call almost everyone Du and everyone loves him. Go figure.

G in Berlin said...

In a funny reversal, my parents did not invite my German boyfriend (now husband)to use their first names for-hmm. When we were engaged, my dad invited him- we had been dating for 4 years. I believe my mom did after the ceremony, so that was 5 years. My in-laws asked me the first time, but since I spoke no German it was just a gesture of friendship.
The first time I tried to use Sie, at a school function, everyone laughed at me and told me to use du. The German says folks expect Americans to always use du, and aren't offended by it becaiuse they are happy enough that we are trying to use German at all. In fact, most people are very nice about my crap German. They all know it's a tough language to learn after English.

Tiffany said...

I've been here 7 years and consider myself fairly fluent...but under pressure I still freak out, especially if my German is around. It happened just the other day again. Don't let it get to you...at least you're trying!

Diane Mandy said...

I am sorry you had such a tough experience! I admire you for even trying. I've just given up!