“So, do you want to do me?”...At first pass, a question such as this brings to my mind images from a handful of low budget movies featuring a seedy nightclub, lost shoes, missing friends and “that” guy at the bar who thinks the unfortunate starlet of this film will succumb to his charm after he delivers this cringe-worthy proposal. In resetting this scene however to Germany and switching it up to the local language, I can guarantee you this line functions a lot differently here. So while the relationship between our starlet and her suitor is most definitely designed to change if she becomes so inclined as to accept his invite, be rest assured it is not in the creepy fashion my Americanized visual would have one believe.
How Do You Du (oder Sie) Me in German?
German, much like French and Russian but so unlike English, uses two different forms with which to address “you.” Du - the informal version of “you” is generally used to address friends, family and children and therefore signals a level of familiarity and openness between the speaker and their intended receiver. Sie on the other hand has been reserved for figures of authority, those older than you, your boss and random strangers. Consequently, to “Siezen" someone implies formality and respectful distance. Understanding the difference between these two pronouns is important within the context of the German language as to address someone with a du who expects to be addressed as Sie can have what I would call - consequences. My personal schooling on the subject came as part of the “tough love” program handed down from my first German language instructor who I inadvertently referred to as du instead of Sie. With the kind of theatrics best suited to a heroine straight out of a Shakespearean play, I watched in curious wonder as she laid her hand dramatically across her breast and made very clear, and in no uncertain terms, exactly who "Sie" was.
In relaying this story a few weeks later to a fellow expat (Canadian) and a long time resident of Germany, she found nothing lighthearted with regard to my retelling and found further issue on the subject when I casually mentioned I was to meet my soon-to-be-mother-in-law for the first time.
“Well, how are you going to address her?” she asked with what appeared to be grave concern.
Before I could cobble together answer...
“Will you use du or Sie?! You have to know that before you meet,” she continued.
Now at this stage in the game I was a straight up German language novice, which meant my soon-to-be-mother-in-law-meeting-agenda included lots of sitting, smiling and nodding agreeably to things I hoped I would not regret later in life.
My new friend was not convinced.
“Well, you need to find out immediately if it’s du or Sie because eventually you will learn German (I was still waiting on my Superhero powers to activate in order for this to happen) and therefore need to understand which pronoun to use.
“This,” she concluded, “is not something to be taken lightly. I was not allowed to address my mother-in-law using ‘du’ until after my husband and I were married!”
She was beginning to sound hysterical, I thought, and not in the funny, ha-ha sorta way.
Finding myself eventually back home, I Googled my way towards answers but unfortunately was met with only more questions. Ultimately I landed on an expat forum which featured a post from a young woman who had dealt with her own boyfriend/mother/du/Sie issues but was now rejoicing in the fact that she had recently been invited (because yes, you must receive an invitation) to now start du-ing her. With the post ending with an uncorked bottle of champagne and toasts all around in commemorating this historical occasion, I came to believe that my new friend's concerns were not as absurd as I had made them out to be.
This is How I Sie You
Now to the untrained eye, this du/Sie thing might seem fairly cut and dry but I can guarantee you, it’s anything but. The non-transparent complexities involving 1. where you are (Brauhaus = du / fancy restaurant = Sie) 2. who you are (16-year-old shop clerk = Sie / 16-year-old niece of the neighbor’s = du) and 3. what you are (your boss at most traditional German companies = Sie / your boss at the cool, new start-up where everyone is under the age of 25 = du), all dictate how these pronouns play out in bright and shiny real life. With this said, I came to realize there was a big mishandling during the early days of my integration process here as I never received my personal copy of the Insider's Guide On How To Du/Sie Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. Seven years later I continue to take issue with this massive failing but unfortunately don't know who to complain to nor understand if I am still eligible to receive a copy of the damn thing.
Several months back, while chatting with a German friend about her job, we touched on the du/Sie topic because, if you have not figured it out up to this point, it continues to haunt me. During our chat, I asked about her colleagues and what form of ‘you’ she uses when speaking to them. It was Sies all around.
“But why I?” asked me - the casual American. “You have been working with these people for over two years. Why wouldn’t you want to be more relaxed at work and address them as du?”
“Because,” she said, “it breaks down barriers I don't want broken down - allows for questions I don't want asked. I mean, I most certainly don't want them referencing my weekend and asking me what I did. This happens when you become du.”
Good grief I thought, what in the world is she doing this weekend?
Organizing a coup?