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Grease Jar #2: Addressing People the correct way


Date21 Jan 2022


Understanding proverbs and idioms helps a lot when one wants to get closer to a foreign culture. Language wisdom sharpens your awareness and makes you more open-minded. It comes hand in hand with wisdom and experience about the foreign culture you have decided to live in. One of the first things to learn in German, is how to address the person you are meeting in the correct manner. Saying “Hello” is often lesson number one in the German class. Most of you may have mastered that already, and the basics seem to be easy. “Du” for informal and “Sie” for formal. But let me tell you, the colours are not just black and white. There are some shades of grey in that picture. At least in Germany.

 If you need an explanation on what a grease jar is, please read article #1 in the grease jar series to learn about that fun German idiom.

Were we not doing the “du” thing?

Every society, every language or even dialect has its “golden laws” on how to address elders or people of respect. In addition, there are conventions for addressing a person who is a friend or a younger member of the family. Often, by way of addressing, we can express the value and rank of the relationship. Thus, it is understandable that by using the wrong way of addressing a person, we may unintentionally decrease the person we are talking to, sometimes even without being aware. It may seem as if we were not giving value to that person, or even lacking respect in the conversation. Conversely, we may be creating an atmosphere of distance where it is not desired.

One thing may be said in general

In Germany, people living in the countryside or belonging to the working class tend to be more open towards generally using the informal way of address, which is “Du”. So don't be baffled if someone addresses you the informal way in that context, who is younger. On the other hand you should never start a formal letter to any office by saying “Liebe Maria,”! You should always say: “Sehr geehrte Frau / Sehr geehrter Herr,” ! This is not America, where you can start any chat with “Hi, Claire!”.

So, in other words, it is not just “formal” and “informal”, but it is more complex. Both versions may be used at times. 

How to know when to say what? 

Sometimes the ways of addressing a person are very clearly regulated. In India, for example, the rules are solid as gold. Elder people and people of respect are always addressed with “Aap”. There are no exceptions. So, it might just be as easy as that. Hence, you definitely insult an elder person by addressing them with “tu”. Now here's the interesting fact: In Germany, you can actually insult a person by not addressing them the informal way. Let me explain by telling what happened to a friend:

Ria Sharma worked in a German company in IT support. She did her job really well and was able to charm customers. She was always a good colleague and co-workers as well as management were very happy to have her in the team. The company was rather small, and for the family of the manager it was really important to keep the good team vibes up, so one day Ria along with her husband Ashu and some other top-ranking co-workers were invited for dinner by the management. Mr. and Mrs Meier, the owner of the company had chosen a casual but fancy restaurant. As the evening moved on, everybody was enjoying the company and conversation flowed. At some point, Mr. and Mrs. Meier were standing next to Mr. and Mrs. Sharma, and Mrs. Meier said to Ria: “You have now been working in our company for three years, and I really appreciate your efforts. You are such a darling! Would you not mind, if I offered you “das DU”? Glasses were raised, cheers were made and Mr. Meier said: “You can call me Karl! This is my wife Sylvia!”

Some days later in the office, Ria said to Mrs. Meier: “Könnten SIE die Teambesprechung bitte etwas nach hinten schieben?“ (Could you kindly reschedule the time of the team meeting a little later?) Her boss Mrs. Meier looked at her quite bewildered and said: „But were we not doing the “Du” thing?”

It may actually seem a matter of less importance. After all it is just two words. You may say that for Mrs. Sharma it is extremely hard to break with the traditions and rules of respect she was taught to in her home country. It seems not right for her to break with them. This is more than language, it is proper behaviour. For her, it feels like being rude, so Mrs. Sharma continues to address her boss and his wife with “Sie”.

But for Mrs. Meier it is just as difficult. In Germany it is a tradition to offer the informal way of saying “DU” to each other. It is usually offered by the elder person or the person of respect and it constitutes a huge gesture of trust. It comes along with the offer to establish a friendly relationship that sees the other person on the same level. It is actually equal to an offer of friendship. It has vibes like: ditch all the hierarchy and let’s be more casual. 

So, in other words, by disrespecting this new language level, it may seem as if Mrs. Sharma would not accept that offer of friendship or even as if she were trying to keep things more formal or distant for any unknown reason. Luckily they talked about it, and Ria was able to explain how she was brought up in India, with the tradition of respect and “Aap” to her boss. Now, things are pretty relaxed, while she has learned to say “DU” most of the time. Though sometimes her tongue slips and she might switch back into the “respect” mode, they always laugh about it.

I hope this little story made things more easy to grasp for you as a reader. So next time, when talking to somebody in German, try to be aware of those subtle differences. And feel free to accept the humble offer of friendship when some German speaking person offers you the “DU”! Maybe it marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

A kind reminder towards more love and understanding

Language awareness helps. Whatever level you are on, never forget that the other person may have a completely different background. Seemingly wrong actions or words may be caused by that cultural background or language background and hardly ever have any intention to hurt. Try to always see the person behind the situation. In case of misunderstandings, talking always helps. When living in another country for long, your own cultural values may be reframed after some time. This does not necessarily mean a loss of identity.

Want to learn more about the risk of stepping into a grease jar? Follow our next article in the grease jar series. Have you ever experienced a similar situation? Get back to us in the comments section or get in touch via the New2 FORUM

Written by: Martina Mathur (http://www.martinamathur.com/

Cover Photo Credit: Cytonn Photography - Unsplash

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