In Germany, the Oxymoron of Mr. Du


January 05, 2012 20:48 EDT
*[This article was originally published by Knowledge@Wharton on January 3, 2012].

Historical and social aspects responsible for the etiquette of addressing others in German.

In the world of business, there is no worse mistake than addressing your boss, client or counterpart in a negotiation in a way that might be perceived as disrespectful or simply out of place. While all countries have rules when it comes to language etiquette, using the correct terminology in Germany can be a somewhat daunting task. It is well-known that people’s titles in Germany can fill up several lines on their business cards—your German colleague, while known as Klaus in Philadelphia, is really Herr Professor Doktor Graf Mueller in Frankfurt. To make matters worse, the German language is but one of several in which there are two forms for the simple American you: the familiar du and the formal Sie. The complications surrounding the proper form of the address for others in Germany do not end here. They are historical, social and evocative.

Frederick the Great, the infamous king of Prussia during the country’s height of influence in 18th century Europe, was an extremely private man. It was said that one could have been a guest in his summer palace for months and never noticed that he had a wife. This is ironic, given that he deliberately built his palace with little space for guests to begin with. Rather than socializing with humans, he chose to surround himself with his beloved dogs. In fact, he addressed his dogs with the formal Sie. Arguably, his mere use of this pronoun signaled Frederick’s deep affection for his dogs, more so than the fact that he insisted on being buried next to them.

Mr. Du in Theory

Simply said, the informal du is used only between family members and close friends. In addition, it is used in prayers when addressing God and other holy figures. Obviously, it is also used in relation to animals. The formal Sie is used in all other cases and signals politeness, respect and distance. In terms of other commonly applied rules, in the celebratory transition from the formal to the informal pronoun, the du can be “offered” to the conversational partner to acknowledge established closeness and trust. With older, more traditional Germans, this success would even be commemorated through “drinking to brotherhood.” Two could also meet in the middle—continuing to use the Sie, but switching to first names. Once Germans agree to use the du, reversing it would symbolize the demise of their relationship.

In addition, the rules of etiquette apply differently depending on the context. Thus, a customer at a high-end store in a posh Berlin district must be addressed with the Sie, while not even the most distinguished Herr Doktor is guaranteed the same treatment at the convenience store around the corner. The differences also extend to Germany’s leading political parties. The Social Democrats rarely, if ever, address each other with the Sie, while doing so among the ruling Christian Democrats or their coalition partners is standard practice.

Understanding the differences in use between the du and the Sie is a complicated process, as the rules have changed noticeably over the years. The significance in the use of salutations can be traced through various points in German literature and history. These salutations have frequently become a way of making political or religious statements. For example, as early as the beginning of the 16th century, Martin Luther blasphemously used the du in addressing the Pope in his writings. Implicit in this communication was criticism of the Pope as well as a suggestion of equality between man and church. Later, in Friedrich Schiller’s Intrigue and Love, published in 1784, Secretary Wurm used the Sie to address a working-class couple—an unprecedented gesture in relation to the “lower social ranks.” The reader, initially baffled by this formal behavior, subsequently learns of a relationship between the couple’s daughter and the President’s son, a connection that conveys social and political importance. Thus, the mere use of one of these pronouns carries an intricate and deep social and political meaning with regard to respect.

In recent history, 1968 saw the restructuring of German society. Young German students, now known as the “Generation of ‘68,” stormed the streets to protest against German conservatism, which led to lasting changes. In particular, the students protested against the Vietnam War, set in motion the founding of the environmentally progressive Green Party and sparked the feminist movement. But most importantly in the current context, they revolutionized German linguistics. Until then the Sie was used even among family members. Naturally, students addressed fellow students with the formal Sie as well.Marking a turning point, members of the student movement purposefully began addressing each other with the du to signal group solidarity and equality—mimicking a concurrent movement exhibited by the workers’ party. At the same time, and due in part to the split of Germany, the transition to the du signaled equality between the people of the German Democratic Republic—one of the socialist principles easily enforced through language.

And today? There is an ongoing struggle between the move to liberal modernity and the traditional rules of the strict class system that call for social formalities and politeness. Thus, an unclear, subjective system is in place. Generally, Germans assess two main criteria to determine which pronoun to use: how well they know someone and whether this person is a member of the same social group. A quick test of the rules in present-day Germany reveals that they tend to be a little less complicated and definitely more liberal than in past decades.

Mr. Du on a Conference Call

German academic settings have clearly defined the rules for using the Sie and thedu, even though not everyone chooses to conform to them. Consider the dynamics in German classrooms. When speaking to their teachers and professors, students use the formal address as well as the title of Frau (Mrs.) or Herr (Mr.) and the last name. During the first 10 years of schooling, teachers use the du when addressing students. However, in secondary schools, starting in the eleventh grade, it is common for teachers to start addressing their students with the Sie while also continuing to use the first name—a form of address known as the “Hamburger Sie.”

At universities, students will almost always use the Sie with their professors and vice versa, but even here we encounter exceptions to the rule. For example, Annette Mintgen, a student at the Technical University in Munich, had a more progressive professor who tried to implement a mutual du usage policy. The students were not accustomed to this unusual proposition and quickly rejected the professor’s efforts in order to protect the familiar status quo.

In the business world—an intrinsically hierarchical environment—the question of proper etiquette in forms of address arises with regularity. How do you address a junior member of the team? Do you always use the Sie with your boss, even if he or she is younger? What do you say to the people with whom you have a personal relationship outside of work? Ask Germans how to answer these questions, and they will invariably hesitate before they respond. Matthias Keckl, investment manager at Frauenhofer Venture Group, and Johannes Elsner, associate principal at McKinsey, both observed that “it is a very complex issue.”

In Germany, tradition dictates that one must maintain formality in the workplace and address all coworkers—from recent college graduates to the CEO of the company—with the formal Sie. This norm is believed to create a necessary distance between management and subordinates, foster a culture of mutual respect in the workplace and clearly delineate personal and professional relationships. After all, how could one fire a subordinate or give a coworker a bad performance review if the conversational style were to imply that the two parties are friends? The formal Sie provides the necessary distance. Formal rules aside, Germans recognize that their traditionally conservative culture has become more liberal in recent decades. In fact, most will admit that the rules of the du and the Sie are changing in the workplace.

“Creative” companies—such as technology start-ups, publishing houses and advertising agencies—have completely abandoned the formal Sie and not only allow, but insist on the use of the informal du throughout the organizational hierarchy. Managers at these companies firmly believe it is more important to establish good team dynamics than to maintain authority and distance through linguistics. For example, the founders of Ray Sono, a hip Internet advertising agency, have set an explicit goal to promote friendship among their employees. They believe the required use of the informal du in the workplace goes a long way toward achieving this harmony.

At the same time, the widespread belief in the German business world states that employees in traditionally conservative industries—such as banking, management consulting and insurance—must continue to address each other with the Sie. But is the reality really so strict? Conversations with bankers, consultants and employees in the insurance business reveal that they all address each other with the informal du—from the junior analyst to the managing director—and usually extend the invitation to use the informal address to their clients at the very start of their professional relationships.

A recent informational meeting with consulting firm Bain & Company opened with, “Let’s just address each other with the du for simplicity’s sake.” Similarly, a visit to investment management giant PIMCO revealed that co-workers refuse to consider the formal Sie when interacting among themselves. In contrast, a minority of ultra-conservative and traditional German companies, such as Siemens and BMW, continue to insist on maintaining the traditional Sie in all professional interactions. However, with the strong trend toward a more informal workplace, even these companies are beginning to experience changes in their employees’ linguistic behavior.

Today, many German companies have global operations and hire non-German-speaking employees in their German offices. In these situations, meetings and workplace conversations are often conducted in English, where the appropriate form of address in German is no longer relevant. For example, at PIMCO Germany, where most conversations tend to be conducted in German, as soon as an American manager walks into the conference room, the language of communication immediately switches to English and the du and Sie dilemma disappears.

As with any rule, there are notable exceptions, especially if convenience is in question. Therefore, Germans continue to use the Sie in potentially conflicting or heated business situations as well as in regular day-to-day interactions between colleagues to create distance between the parties. It is somehow easier to take a strong stance on a contract or situation when the formality created by the Sie exists. Therefore, efforts are made to maintain this distance to minimize future surprises or clashes. As Katy Herrick, a manager at BMW, notes, she was addressed repeatedly with the du by a junior colleague without having offered it to him. Because she viewed his behavior as informal and unprofessional for the work setting, she emphasized the use of the Sie in communication with him to indirectly reinstate the distance he had disrupted.

Mr. Du at the Beer Garden

At first glance, the line between the Sie and the du is much less clear in social situations than in the formal world. Maresa Winkler, a teacher of German as a foreign language, provides an example to illustrate this ambiguity. When she met her new neighbor for the first time, she was not sure how she should address him. On one hand, he appeared to be her age. On the other hand, he was wearing business formal attire—obviously on his way to work. When he introduced himself with his first name, Maresa knew she should use the informal du with him. Had he introduced himself with his last name as well, she would have addressed him with the formal Sie. Speaking from experience, Maresa provides advice for similar ambiguous situations and suggests avoiding the use of personal pronouns altogether.

As another example, fitness trainer Telat Salcan uses the du form most of the time. With people who are his age, he uses the informal address exclusively. With older people, such as his friend’s parents, for example, he will use the Sie until offered the du. An important factor in such situations is whether the friend’s parents are conservative or not. Similarly, Annette Mintgen notes that her boyfriend’s parents always use the formal Sie when addressing her. Annette’s father also used the Sie with her sister’s husband for more than 10 years, until the son-in-law finally decided to take the first step and started using the du. At first, the father-in-law was surprised, but he quickly began to address his son-in-law similarly. Although the father-in-law was generally not opposed to this informality, the thought of offering the du had just never crossed his mind.

Naturally, social rules pertaining to the du versus the Sie distinction may also include regional variations. Born and raised in the southern federal state of Bavaria, college student Christine Riederer pointed out that, while Bavarians in Munich are more likely to be more formal in addressing other people, Bavarians in the countryside use the du most of the time. This peculiarity has led to many bizarre situations, including a lawsuit filed against a 55-year-old Bavarian woman who once addressed a police officer with the du. Fortunately, the judge ruled that her behavior was not offensive, but rather a customary form of address in her rural hometown.

What can we conclude from this quagmire? Germany’s linguistic culture is liberalizing. It is more common than ever to hear the du in the office, regardless of whether the company is considered young and hip or mature and conservative. In leisure activities and family relations, the du is also used more often. In fact, it is not surprising for colleagues to address each other with the du in both professional and personal realms.Traditionally, “Dienst [war] Dienst und Schnaps [war] Schnaps,” that is, “duty was duty and liquor was liquor.” This saying, which once summarized Germans’ approach to the du versus the Sie dilemma, has become obsolete. While formal literature still recommends the conservative, polite and overly respectful German, society is moving in the opposite direction and calling for a friendlier and more informal German. For the American onlooker, whose own language does not have this clear distinction, it is important to understand that the use of the du and the Sie is not a simple change in pronouns, but rather a significant and telling change in modality and mood. Moreover, a mere pronoun wrapped in context can signal deep appreciation and adoration. King Frederick and his dogs would definitely agree.

This article was written by Mila Adamova, Tanja Magas and Inna Morgounova, members of the Lauder Class of 2013.

*[This article was originally published by Knowledge@Wharton on January 3, 2012].

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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