"Drinking Brotherhood" [Brüderschaft Trinken]
There is a German meme that Helmut Kohl once told George H.W. Bush that he could address him with the informal "Du". Of course, the translation into English was nonsense, because there is no difference between the formal "you´" and the informal "you" in modern English. (I understand that many years ago "thou" was the familiar and "you" the formal address.) The meme offers just a glimpse at a cultural difference that, once examined closely, proves as deep as Baikal Lake and as treacherous as a snake-infested swamp to innocent dabblers in language. I'm either going to have to expand this post over the years or continuously refer back to it, as I cannot hope to cover the topic in one setting.
Rule 1. Adult strangers are to be addressed with the formal "Sie". Children, family members, and idiots may be addressed with the informal "Du". If you are "per Sie", then you address the person as "Herr" or "Frau" Soundso. If you are "per Du" you may address them by their given name.
Rule 2. There are strict rules at to who may offer the informal salutation to another person, based on age, gender and status. In its simplest form, the person authorized by society to offer the informal address simply states "Ich bin Helmut" ("I'm Helmut").
Rule 3. Modern Germany is awash with exceptions and variations to these rules, some of which are awkward, some hilarious.
Today, Fräulein Bloggerboy and I were watching a soap opera on public television. Fräulein Bloggerboy started giggling when two characters in their fifties addressed one another by their given names while retaining the formal "Sie". Purists would snort, but this is modern Germany. I explained to Fräulein Bloggerboy that the two characters had even made out with one another on a couch during one show, but they still retained the formal address, bastardized by the use of the given name. Later in the show, one of the elder characters was talking to one of the younger characters. They shared an apartment and were "per DU". Nevertheless, the younger character called the older character "Herr Soundso". Fräulein Bloggerboy was incensed.
Now, one might think that the soap opera was being unrealistic -- far from it. I have one or two relationships with older Germans that seem to be evolving in the same direction. A former employer of mine never got around to offering me the "Du". He's old fashioned, and that's fine with me. The problem is: we often had to deal with Americans here and in the states. Suddenly he was addressing me by my given name, and I was free to address him and his wife by their given names, but between and among us we spoke German and retained the Sie, and even the "Herr Soundso". Talk about awkward. I will never forget the day my dear mother-in-law ("Mutti") offered me the "Du". It was the day Frau Bloggerboy and I announced our engagement. Good friends of ours who have know "Mutti" for decades still have not been offered a "Du". Mutti prefers it that way. Germans are not unique in this game. We knew a French woman from a noble background. Her parents still addressed one another with the formal "vous". If I'm not mistaken, the recent film Amour by Michael Haneke also shows scenes of the elderly French couple addressing one another formally.
Have you had enough yet?
Margaret commented that many groups in France that share a common activity (e.g. hiking) are quick to switch to the informal address and first-name basis. I can confirm that this often happens in Germany as well. You just have to develop a feel for what is right in each group. (Am I the only one who has trouble keeping track of whether I am being addressed in the formal or informal.) Over the years, I have developed a default setting of using the formal address to prevent insulting sensitive Germans. This proves difficult, however, when we move to "Du" at some later date. It takes several encounters before I stop slipping up and using "Sie". Even Germans forget whether they have offered a "Du" to someone they see infrequently.
A few months ago I finally offered a "Du" to a German colleague, a woman at a large firm whom I've worked with for over 20 years. I'm pretty sure that my age required that I offer the "Du", but then again, I'm not sure whether the gender difference trumps age. In any event, she almost seemed relieved to get past "Sie". I certainly was, and I regret not having gotten up the nerve many years ago. It is much more comfortable on the phone now, even if I occasionally slip in a "Sie" from time to time. After 20 years, who can blame me?