SPRECHEN SIE DU?

American-style informality has reached Germany, and it is producing some friction. Andreas Kluth, back home from California, speaks from experience

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

About 20 years ago, somewhere in the Tyrol, I played a round of golf with my father and a couple who are old family friends, in both senses of the word. As sport, it was not a memorable event. But as a case study in awkwardness, it was instructive, for we were speaking German. The wife is Austrian, the husband German, and both are of the first post-war generation, whereas I was then in my 20s. Many years earlier, they had invited me to address them with the casual or intimate Du instead of the formal or respectful Sie. In the meantime, I had gone off to live in America. Now I was back for a visit. Would they remember their own invitation? If yes, they would be offended by my Sie. If no, they would be offended by my Du.

There was only one solution. I had to avoid using the second person altogether. And so, for 18 holes, we teed off, walked fairways and searched roughs, many roughs, making small talk all the while as I stretched the passive tense and the German capacity for indirectness to its limits. Only at the 19th hole, over drinks, did the wife spot my dilemma. Discreetly, she renewed their old invitation.

Most European languages distinguish between a formal and an informal you. French has tu and vous, Spanish and usted, and Portuguese even has three gradations (tu, você and o senhor/a senhora). But each culture navigates the resulting ambiguities in its own way. And Germans seem particularly vulnerable.

Their writhing and squirming is a staple of German humour, that underappreciated genre. Its late patriarch, Vicco von Bülow, better known as Loriot, devoted a memorable television skit to it, entitled "Kosakenzipfel"(Cossack’s Tip). Two couples, who met while camping and have become friendly, sit at a formal dinner. One of the husbands clinks his glass to perform the excruciating ritual of proposing the Du. Newly and officially intimate, the couples proceed to chit-chat about matters of mind-bending banality until a tiny disagreement, about dessert (the Kosakenzipfel), destabilises the conversation. A desperate retreat to Sie only makes the situation worse. The couples leave the restaurant hurling abuse at each other and can be assumed to be lifelong enemies.

But that was 1978, and this is 2012. Today’s Germans have been eagerly importing informality from America, crediting its prevailing casualness—in places such as Silicon Valley—with creativity, productivity and modernity generally. So the Germans, like the Swedes and Danes, are increasingly dispensing with the formal second person even among strangers, on the assumption that this will make things easy, cuddly and bubbly. This year, like the casualness itself, I moved from California to Germany, and I was eager to see how this revolution was going.

In a self-consciously American environment such as Starbucks, the transition is all but complete; its baristas in Berlin use Du as naturally as though they were saying "have a great day" in Seattle. Other environments cling to a more Germanic, rules-based approach. At the front desk of a vacation resort in rural Mecklenburg, I received, along with our keys, a one-page form instructing us that we were to use Du throughout the grounds, with all guests and personnel. We promised to obey, and partially did. 

The form may sound ridiculous, but it’s trickier when the protocol must be inferred spontaneously. A flow chart has been circulating on German Facebook pages that sets out to clarify in PowerPoint style who may initiate the Du with whom and when. In a nutshell: it’s still advisable that the junior should wait for the senior and the male for the female, and that all those confused avoid making any utterance. Dilbert types in the German corporate world share wrenching tales of already being at Du with a peer until one of them gets promoted. 

There is another possible outcome, as I realised at a recent Berlin dinner party given by a government official who had also spent time in America. My wife and I were the first to arrive and our host opened by using the Du. Then other guests joined. To my horror, I became aware that our host was using Sie with the man on my left, that some of the ladies were Du-ing each other but Sie-ing my host, and that I was by turns a Du or a Sie when I queued at the buffet. 

Recalling my round of golf all those years ago, I briefly contemplated returning to my old strategy of avoiding the second person altogether. This proved unsustainable. Next, I opted for more wine, which helped me, but not the others. At last, a solution materialised. As my host and I stood in his kitchen, going deep into this and that, we two Germans slipped into English. Finally we both felt right at home.

Andreas Kluth is Berlin correspondent for The Economist and author of "Hannibal and Me"

Illustration Brett Ryder