To Du or not to Du.


This is becoming quite depressing; for the third time in two months I have been snubbed in the same manner: after chatting with a new aquaintence we shook hands and I offered my first name only to be completely blanked and rebuffed by the lack of a reciprocal first name. These are not complete strangers, but neighbours and local people who know we moved here recently and who we are interacting with.

After reflecting upon this, I have come to the simplistic conclusion that the blame for snubbing, cashier rudeness and don’t mention the war, can be blamed on the use of the formal ‘Sie’ and informal ‘Du’ in Germany (in English, ‘you’).

As I understand it, Du is for children and friends, Sie is for everyone else. Du is diminutive whilst Sie has gravitas.

Nobody likes being belittled or made feel unimportant, yet that is what happens every day to German kids. In general, children are only allowed call parents, family or other kids, ‘Du‘. All teachers and adults must be called  ‘Sie’, conversely all children are called ‘Du’ by everyone.

There is a clear association with power, superiority and inferiority in the use of these words, consequently, it is only natural for a child to aspire to being called ‘Sie’. And when a child becomes an adult and is called ‘Sie’ by strangers and children, it does not want to go back to being called ‘Du’ by just anyone because this implies inferiority.

When I asked my wife why people were being rude and not reciprocating with first names, she said that it was probably because they do not want me to call them ‘Du’ which might happen if they give me their first name (this is termed ‘offering the Du’).  Consequently, just because of the words Sie and Du, a natural barrier to friendliness exists.

It’s human nature, those on top want to stay there… and I suppose its entirely un-realisitic to expect evolution (progression?) on this since Sie and Du are central tenets of German identy and culture. Would Mozart and Beethoven have created their masterpieces if everyone had called them Du?

What kind of silly question is that? I’m going mad!

Anyway, I am convinced that only these two words ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’ are the whole reason for German formality and rigidity in business and in fact  in all walks of life; everyone wants to be called Herr or Frau because they are afraid of losing status and being belittled by ‘Du’ thus christinan names cannot be used.

It’s a different culture, and when in Rome do as the Romans do etc. but if I do this I am contributing to the problem. True, it is probably not perceived as a a problem by germs but nevertheless I am severely tempted to use the English ‘you‘ in German conversations, and continue to offer my christian name – just to see what happens;-)