March 13.



The end of Sie?

Soon after I arrived in Germany I began to whine about how quickly Sie, the formal form of “you”,  is disappearing. I had been looking forward to the pleasant formality of Germans as a refreshing change of scene. I brought this up with two of my classmates at the language school. Clara, the Aussie, disagreed with me, feeling that Du shows friendliness right off the bat, and that’s a good thing. (She is also all for getting rid of gendered word endings for professions).  Aidah, the Egyptian, helpfully suggested what her German husband had told her—always use Sie when you speak to anyone but never be offended if they reply with Du. This is what I must do. I have to stop being so damn tweedy, get with the program and let go of my disappointment at seeing Sie run out of town by the younger generations.

The endangered status of Sie has surprised even Lothar, who says it’s a phenomenon of just the last few years. In some older German grammar books you won’t even find Du, evidently because it was thought to be too dangerous in the wrong hands.

He blames the sudden shift to Du on internet culture and globalized, app-ified commerce. Everyone here who’s trying to sell something is in a rush to use English words even when there are perfectly good, compact German ones. It’s all about branding and looking cool. Among the casualties in this hyper-commercial global-speak is the distinction between Du and Sie.

It used to be that you could live next door to someone or work with them for 20 years and still say Sie. You might eventually progress from addressing each other as Frau/Herr to actually using first names, but even so the Sie would remain as a kind of final frontier. To change to Du was a big deal. Usually the older person would extend that invitation and there’d be a little ceremony involving a stiff drink. That’s all gone by the wayside. The time elapsed from Sie to Du is no longer years but often only a minute. Not always and not everywhere, Lothar warns me. This shifting straight from Sie to Du or foregoing Sie altogether is more common on TV and in “cool” stores aimed at young people. Don’t try it everywhere.  You can really put your foot in it if you are too hasty. It’s better to wait.

How to explain this problem to a non-German speaker? Saying Du instead of Sie (or Tu instead of Vous, if you’re French) might not be meant to be rude or hurtful but it would be like calling your parents by their first names. It’s just so….weird. And it’s not just a matter of using one word or the other. You can’t just leave the pronoun out completely —  the verb will give you away every time. It’s a large-scale choice you have to make every time you open your mouth speak to someone.

With the whole Sie vs. Du situation,  once you start down one path, it’s very awkward to backtrack. It’s like forgetting someone’s name. You have one, maybe two chances after the first meeting to ask again, after that it would just be rude or at least uncomfortable for everybody. When it comes to Sie/Du I leave it up to the Germans I’m speaking to. Not surprisingly, a little alcohol and fun makes the crossover from Sie to Du a little easier for everyone.  When in January we went kegeling  (a kind of bowling) and drinking with a bunch of fun people we’d only met once before through our landlady, the awkward mixture of Sie and Du emerged but was  finally put to rest after a couple of hours. You can’t “poodle” (put a ball in the gutter) for the umpteenth time and still be Sie-ing someone. We were well past that stage. That said, the youngest person there, the teenage son of one of our new friends, continued to say Sie to the oldest person in the group, Lothar, and shook hands with him in a straightforward way at the end of the night.

If Sie might still hang in there somehow, the handshake, another mainstay of German courtesy and fellowship, has been undone overnight. Only a few weeks ago it was common to see even schoolkids shaking hands warmly when they met their friends. Now heads of state won’t even extend a hand. All thanks to COVID-19. I haven’t seen the #Wuhan Shake catch on in Kassel and Lothar reports that nobody is using their elbows to greet one another. We’ll see what happens as the virus spreads.

Yesterday a woman I’d never met but who has been chatting with Lothar on the bus  came in to invite me to a potluck Abend Brot (supper) and in the process tell me her life story and investigate me in a friendly way. She had borrowed my pen to draw me a detailed map of where she lives. After she’d left I found myself washing the pen in the kitchen sink (!) How awful it felt to do this. Has it come to this? These awful but necessary defences. We are cutting down courtesies like they were trees.  Optimists in the newspapers tell us that the pandemic will generate new manners, new civilities, that all is not lost. Civilization is built every day, by each of us.

Update: the Abend Brot had to be cancelled. Even here in Habichtswald we are all trying to do our part by staying away from each other.

I shake Ihre/deine hand, in my electronic way. Take care, be well!

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