There is a lot of bewilderment for non-native speakers when it comes to talking to Germans in Germany. What should it be? “Du” (pronounce: doo) or “Sie” (pronounce: zee)? And when do you use first names and when last names? And when do you say “Frau” (pronounce: frouw, i.e. Mrs.) and when “Fraeulein” (pronounce: froy-line, i.e. Miss)? So much easier in English, right?
Well, it’s all a matter of closeness and respect, even in English. Because even though I might call you “Bob” or “Kathy” to your face, when I talk about you in public it will turn into a way more respectful “Bob Last-name” and “Kathy Last-name”, if not even into a “Mr. Last-name” and “Mrs. Last-name”. And even the “Mrs.” might be politically incorrect, depending on how much I know about your marital status. After all, you might be a Ms. Also: Have you ever noticed the slight shift from calling an acquaintance you only just met by their first name to being on first name basis with an old friend? There sure is a difference, right?
As you all know Germans tend to be a bit blunter and more outspoken. It might be this bluntness that let’s you know where you are standing with each other. It’s definitely a “Sie” combined with “Herr” (pronounce: hair, i.e. Mister) or “Frau” and last names when you have only met a German. By the way, the term “Fraeulein” is totally outdated.
There is that interesting coming-off-age transitional period when teenagers are addressed as “Sie” combined with their first name – a custom that German schools use. Though not a teacher, my mother also stuck to that rule to signal my friends that she regarded them as grown-ups now. I guess it made everyone of us grow a few inches as to self-regard. This custom is very similar to when I meet a stranger I’m supposed to call by their first name the first few times we deal with each other. There’s that respectful distance between us. Though in English we use the seemingly less respectful “you” all the time.
But here’s the deal: Do you know the difference between “you” and “thou”? Apart from running into the terms “thee”, “thou”, “thy”, and “thine” in the Lord’s Prayer and other ancient texts? Because actually most Germans think “you” means the same as “du” … which is not the case. In truth it is way more respectful. Yes, out comes the linguist in me … “Thou” used to be a very informal and familiar way to address family and friends. Some of you may remember that in Alcott’s “Little Women” old-fashioned Professor Baer asks his Jo to address him with “thou” for more familiarity. “Ye” was for addressing several persons, which turns its use for a single person into something way more formal. Over the times and by the 17th century, “thou” was regarded as too disrespectful (and more complex with its conjugational rules, too) and replaced by the more formal “ye”, which with vowel shifts and spelling changes became “you”. Interesting, isn’t it?
So, how do you know a German is your friend? Is it simply in being offered “Bruderschaft” (pronounce: brooder-shuft, meaning brotherhood) in linking arms and drinking from each other’s glass, then kissing each other? Most Germans deem this too rustic a tradition. My father has friends whom he has addressed as “Sie” and “Frau” or “Herr” all his lifetime and friends he calls by their first name and addresses as “Du”. It’s normal. It works for both sides. But this German tradition has softened over the years. And a lot comes from Germany peeping across the fence to the English-speaking nations and misapprehending the combination of using “you” and first names as a more familiar approach when it’s all about nuances.
These days, a lot of Germans will tell you: “Say Du and my first name is …” There is one hiccup in the process – once you have had a fall-out, it’s hard, if not impossible to return to a more distanced “Sie”. And it’s easier to call someone names once you have allowed for less distance in your relationship by offering to address each other as “Du”. Which makes it the perfect mix to call it each other “Sie” on a first name basis.
Did I manage to utterly confuse you now? Ah, languages, the changes they make and the turns they take! And how much lies in a few monosyllabic words to show respect to each other. Even between the lines.