Originally Published November 10th, 2021
Most of the things you experience in a foreign country can be relayed back to folks at home without too much contemplation. The convenience store is strange in an explainable way, the city traffic is strange in an explainable way, etc. However, some things are more challenging to get across.
One common example of this is words. The country you are visiting may have a word whose concept simply doesn’t exist in English. This is why the words themselves begin to cross borders. Is there a better way in English to say kindergarten or schadenfreude? I do wish we would adopt fremdschaemen. Although its English equivalent “vicarious embarrassment” is pretty good by itself.
Going a bit further down that rabbit hole of languages, let’s get to the point of this week’s column. German has two ways to say “you.” This isn’t something trivial like “you” vs “youse guys” vs “y’all.” The two styles of “you” in German use completely different verb forms. And choosing which one to use with any given person has implications about your perceived relationship with the other individual. It’s super-duper fun for outsiders to get the hang of.
How different can it be? Here is a quick example of the sentence “You are cool.” in both forms: “Du bist cool.” vs “Sie sind cool.” (Yeah, the Germans went ahead and stole “cool” from English. This is a two-way street.)
The “du” form is for informality and the “sie” form is for formality. The trick, aside from learning all the verb forms, is figuring out when to use each one.
Some examples are clear. If you are interacting with a stranger who is obviously older than you, use the formal form. You are not familiar with this person and they hold a perceived higher place in society than you do due to seniority. If you are speaking with a child, the informal form is expected.
If you need to ask something of someone your age, even if they are a stranger, you’re probably safe with the informal “du” form. However, this may be complicated by the specific situation. For example, are you both attending a sporting event or are you the customer and they the employee in a store? It really depends on how traditional the other person involved is. A friend of mine asked about opening hours to a twentysomething clerk and they chided him for not using the respectful form.
There are little political games to be played with the formal vs informal form as well. In a work environment, your boss may offer the informal form to certain individuals. It can be quite a career-advancing moment depending on the company culture. This is where the article title comes from. If someone was “geduzt” it means they were greeted with an informal form. An English equivalent might be being on a first-name basis with someone.
The Germans love titles and stack them up as they accumulate. Instead of Mr. Schmidt becoming Dr. Schmidt upon completion of a degree, they are now Mr. Dr. Schmidt. If they go on to teach college, they are Mr. Prof. Dr. Schmidt. Offering someone the informal “du” in this world is meaningful.
Spanish has a similar formality system but it skews much more to the informal side in Spain. Only in the clearest situations will the formal form be used. Otherwise, informality all around. In Latin America, it remains more nuanced. It turns out many languages have this concept but the award for this type of system has to go to the Japanese. They have three distinct formality forms! Nein danke.