It’s funny the things that stick in your craw when you learn a new language. For some its pronunciations. For others its words in the new language that sound like swear words in their mother tongue (Irish had some real humdingers!).
For me, one of the hardest things to adjust to with German is the use of formal and informal speech when addressing others.
For those of you not familiar, in some languages you use one set of personal pronouns (the second tense, so “you”) when addressing people in a formal setting: your boss, people older than you, people you’ve just met, your teachers, etc. Then there is a second set of informal personal pronouns you use the rest of the time: with family, close friends, people much younger than you, and so on.
Other than adding a “Sir” or “Ma’am” into the mix, we don’t have this in English. For example, we have other words that we use (called modal verbs for the grammar geeks among us) to make our speech more formal – or polite. For example, with some with whom we are very close we might say, “Can I please have the peas?”
And for extra special situations when we want to afford the person in our company with the utmost respect and polite discourse, we might bust out with, “Might I trouble you to please pass me the peas?”
Well, in German (and many other languages) the formality (aka politeness) is communicated mainly through the manner in which you address the person. In short, there are two different ways to say “you.”
When you first meet someone, you always, always speak to them with Sie (pronounced zee). You continue this formal speech until you both decide you have become close enough to move to du.
However, in order to come to that decision, you have to embark upon the incredibly awkward conversation akin to a dating relationship in which one person asks the other, “So…where is this relationship going, anyway?”
Someone has to brooch the subject by saying something along the lines of, “So…we’ve known each other awhile now and I feel fairly comfortable with you. Should we switch to du now?”
I’ve only had to endure this conversation one time, but I assure you it is just as awkward and tedious as it sounds. I don’t know if its as awkward for the native German speakers as it is for someone like me, who has never spoken a language with the formal/informal set up. But I’m telling you, people…its weird. I mean, what if you suggest moving to du and the other person doesn’t want to?? The shame and embarrassment felt is similar to changing your Facebook status to “in a relationship” after the first date, only to have the other person never call back. Awesome.
And then comes the inevitable time that you accidentally du someone you should have Sie’d. Although, I’ve found most people to be quite gracious in understanding the slip. And, from what I’ve heard this can also be a less awkward way of beginning the “so…where are we?” talk.
Where I’ve found the most offense to happen is when you accidentally Sie someone that you’ve previously du’d. I did that once by complete accident with one of my best friends here. She was obviously insulted because for me to Sie another adult that wasn’t in a position of authority over me meant that I saw her as aged. We laughed about it and she knew I didn’t mean any offense – it was truly just a slip of the tongue – but it definitely knocked the wind out of her at first.
After living here a year and a half I still stress over whether or not I should du or Sie people, and I know more “So…where are we?” conversations are coming. I just hope over time they will get to be less awkward.
How about you? Do you speak a language that uses formal/informal? Is it difficult for you? Or do you find it more awkward speaking a language like English in which there is no distinction?