German awkwardness The limbo between Du and Sie

The standoff between Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer is more than a government crisis; it is also a reminder of the human pitfalls in the German language and culture.
Quelle: dpa [M]
(Foto: dpa [M])

Few spectacles are as excruciating to behold as two human beings publicly pretending to be friends while sniping at each other like bitter enemies. Take Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer. Their faux-cordial enmity goes back years, but has been on full display during this summer’s political crisis.

Germans cringe when they hear Merkel and Seehofer addressing each other with the informal word for “you”: Du. This is traditionally reserved for family, friends, or others on an intimate footing. The cognitive dissonance becomes even starker when you consider Merkel’s interactions with two other women. Beate Baumann and Eva Christiansen have been her intimate confidants for decades. Merkel genuinely trusts them. And yet the three still address one another with the formal “Sie”.

became editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global in March 2017, after writing for The Economist for twenty years.
Andreas Kluth

became editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global in March 2017, after writing for The Economist for twenty years.

Voila, the awkwardness of contemporary German culture: On any given working day, you may find yourself Sie-ing someone you genuinely like, but Du-ing someone you loathe. That is because Germans are caught in a no-man’s-land: between a modern, cosmopolitan and largely Anglo-Saxon culture of informality; and a traditional, old-world mentality of hierarchy and socially choreographed respect.

The Anglo-Saxons didn’t create this problem deliberately. In Shakespeare’s time, speakers of English still used formal and informal second-person pronouns: “you” and “thou”. But the informal pronoun became extinct. Modern Anglophones aren’t even aware that they’re using the formal address all the time. This also means they don’t care. If they appear more relaxed in social intercourse, it’s because they don’t have to navigate between the same categories.

That said, the general trend in American, Canadian, Aussie and Kiwi culture has been toward casualness. And now that business culture is spreading across the world. Some, like the Scandinavians, are fine with that. They have formal and informal pronouns, but they’ve long been so egalitarian and low-key that they don’t really worry about all that anymore. Others, like the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italians, also distinguish between formal and informal address, but navigate these rapids with the aid of humor, charm and sprezzatura.

In Germany, these tools are said to be less widely available. That leaves Germans bearing the full brunt of the culture clash. They, too, yearn to be casual (witness the flux in business attire). But they’re still trapped in the Sie/Du dichotomy — booby-trapped as it is with connotations of power, presumptuousness and affront between male/female, old/young, and senior/junior.

Any ordinary dinner party, board meeting or elevator ride in Germany is thus a potential Bermuda triangle. Person A spontaneously says “Du” to B and C, but C says “Sie” to B, leaving D perplexed. Everybody turns stiff and avoids addressing anybody at all. The only escape lies in small talk about third parties. Which is to say: Merkel and Seehofer.

To contact the author: kluth@handelsblatt.com

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