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July 1999

Du wie Sie eye to eye? There ismore to a language than syntax

A replant tries to figure out the whole du/Sie thing.

Language courses never seem to prepare you for day-to-day communication. I have never encountered a course that has tackled the real difficulty with German. Who cares about regular and irregular, separable and inseparable verbs, cases and tenses and genders? The true sticking point, the core problem of this language is the proper usage of its second person pronouns, specifically Sie and Du. Is there a cultural conspiracy to keep non-German speaking people in the dark about this? If the extreme right succeeded in denying anyone citizenship unless they mastered this conundrum, wide swathes of foreigners would never qualify. Yes, yes, everyone learns that Sie is the formal manner of address for one or more people, and Du is the familiar term. But only one at a time, mind you, otherwise it has to be Ihr. Isn’t life complicated enough? And if you aren’t aware of the finer points of these rules — and no one, it seems, can or will explain them — you can get into some sticky situations. Innocence was bliss for my first few years or so in Germany, living the relaxed, anarchic life of a student. But advancing to the working world knocked that on the head. After moving to a proper flat and running into friendly if formal neighbors on a regular basis, I suggested that we switch over to first-name terms — the dreaded Du. If I had known what I was starting I would have cut my tongue out with a blunt instrument. Apparently saying Du to somebody isn’t something you can do in a stairwell. We had to arrange an evening to sit down in my neighbor’s flat and drink Sekt out of tall glasses standing on little lacy things (the glasses, not us). At some signal that was obscure to me we had to link arms while holding these difficult glasses and sip the contents — or in my case miss my mouth and pour it down the front of my blouse. But this didn’t matter because we were siblings, having just engaged in the ritual of Brüderschaft trinken. Mrs. Neighbor, having just become “You, there” to me, insisted I remove my blouse (in another room, we weren’t that friendly), gave me something else to wear and scrubbed my only silk top with Persil Megaperls. I fondly remember the faded beauty of this blouse whenever I dust the piano with it. Admittedly, most people aren’t quite as formal as these ceremonious neighbors. But even less formal people still seem to have trouble with this dilemma. Trying to avoid faux pas at parties, I usually wait for the Germans I’m talking with to take the first step and commit themselves grammatically. But they seem even more adept than I in avoiding second person address. Have you ever talked to someone for 20 minutes without saying “you” even once? Neither have I. These conversations usually last about three minutes, at the end of which my glass is suddenly empty and needs refilling. The workplace can be awkward as well. In one of the stuffiest places I ever worked, shortly after I left university, it took months before people started relaxing into the Du mode. One female colleague didn’t offer to be on Du terms until I visited her at the hospital after her triple bypass. I suppose you realize who your friends are then. She went back to the Sie, though, after I announced I was leaving. You’d think, after offering friendship and comfort to someone who’s had major heart surgery, you’d be in the inner circle, but no. I was torn between saying Sie back to her to show her how she’d cut me to the quick, or Du just to prove how unaffected I was by her slight. In the end I said nothing. The culture offers no indisputable clues about usage either. If you watch German movies, everyone over the age of 17 says Sie to each other; in the older films the age barrier drops to 12. Dubbed films are the most curious, using first names but formal pronouns. The only thing that seems to change this state of static formality is whatever it is they do behind closed doors. So that was why Mrs. Neighbor shot me that look when I offered the Du to her husband. At what point in a physical relationship does Sie turn into Du? How far do you have to go with someone? Is kissing enough, or do you have to do — Du — it? No wonder we had to leave the stairwell. Maybe this business with the blouse was all planned. Why else would anyone devise such a daft way to drink something? In the end I had to move out because these people were suddenly my best friends. As long as I live in Germany, I’ll just have to accept these personal pronoun problems. But I am prepared. My tops are all wash-and-wear now.

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