Tuesday, June 14, 2011

BFFs: du Process

Interesting talk at dinner the other night about friendship. What does it mean, how do you tell, and how do Germans and Americans differ in their understanding of the meaning, obligations, and limits of friendship.

Germans see Americans as superficial or even manipulative. We smile too much, we presume too much intimacy too fast. In German, there is a distinction between different forms of "you." I found this article, and also this one, if you are interested.

The money quote from the article:

The real problem isn't just grammar; it is also a matter of culture. An English-speaker is not used to making the distinction between the familiar and formal you (except in the similar "Mr. Brown" vs. "Bob" situation). German-speakers are very much aware of it and can become very uncomfortable when the du/Sie rules are broken. German-speakers tend to keep their distance longer with acquaintances than English-speakers do. German business colleagues who have worked together for years continue to address each other as Sie. It does not mean they are unfriendly, but they are maintaining the important German division between truly close friends and mere acquaintances.

This can manifest itself in ways that seem odd to the boundaries. As I wrote before, to an American, Franconia can seem like the land of state-sponsored autism.

But it is just as odd, or maybe more so, for Germans, and especially Franconians. If I said "Good Morning," in perfect German with a German accent, to someone on the street, they would stare in amazement. That is absolutely not done. "We have not been introduced!" would be the reaction. The circle of friends, real friends, for a German is generally smaller than the circle an American with precisely the same set of relationships might identify. But at the center of that circle the friendships seem deeper and with more reciprocal obligations for a German, especially German man.

Americans, on the other hand, can count their friends on Facebook. Where Americans might want many friends, Germans might want good friends.

There was a lot more, but that's the gist of it. I personally am more comfortable with being friendly, and the "superficial" criticism is not very persuasive. Why not be nice? It's more fun. Germans, at first, when they visit the American south assume that people are trying to get something, maybe even rob them, if a conversation is struck up. Americans don't need to be introduced. Germans also find it tough to tell where a friendship starts with an American, and I think they have a point here. Americans are a bit too intimate too fast, but then pull back. How can tell who is a friend, without "du" process?


Anonymous said...

I love traveling.

I love Germans/Germany, and other nordic-types. My finacee's family is 100% Scandinavian, and the reserved/formal stereotype is pretty spot-on.

My family is 100% New England Yankee.

All that said, having lived in the American South my whole life, whenever I travel, hang out with Teutons, or talk to extended family, I have a strong appreciation for the 'superficial' manners of the South.

Give me a region with formal respect ("sir/ma'am", holding doors open, offering seats for women,) second person plurals ("y'all" is a perfectly acceptable word until our Northern cousins can come up with a gender-neutral replacement), and cheerful greetings from strangers over 'good friends' any day.

The rest of the world has forgotten 'Good morning/afternoon,' 'please,' 'thank you,' 'sir/ma'am' and have the temerity to call those that haven't forgotten human decency 'superficial' have broken souls.

I'm particularly amused by some non-Southern women who take offense to "ma'am," as if the gentleman calling her that is calling her 'grandma' or something. Would they prefer if we called them 'broads' or something?

Max said...

The du/sie difference is nothing special in Europe. You just have to visit the neighbours of Germany which also use a latin-based language and you will encounter the same problem. I think it is even worse in France. In Germany you can say "du" and nobody will take it too personally (except in the workplace environment), but in France it might be seen as offensive and this will decrease your chances of getting anything from the so insulted person.

Also, there is a big difference between small villages and big cities, but you are right that we usually don't greet people you are haven't encountered before (a bit like New York City I guess).

I personally try to stay a middle-ground between the German "deep" friendship and the American instant friendliness.

Robert S. Porter said...

I think you've been spending too much time in the (German) south. I've shared Guten Morgens with many a stranger in Berlin. Likewise the du/Sie is breaking down with younger people. Just don't try to experiment with that with the Polizei.

But I must say that I can't stand the superficial happiness of the (American) South. I love being left alone. I don't need to be followed around in stores and spoken to at all times. No one ever needs to be called 'hun'.

And y'all can be replaced by a multitude of gender neutral words. Most simply: everyone.

John Thacker said...

Robert S. Porter:

No, "y'all" cannot be replaced simply by "everyone." It has a different meaning. (In fact, "all y'all" would be closer to "everyone of you.")

John Thacker said...

The trickier part with the American South's politeness isn't the friendliness, it's knowing when to make offers that the other person isn't supposed to accept, and to reject those offers. People will, e.g., offer to pay for dinner out of politeness when it isn't really their place to do so, and the other person is supposed to appreciate the offer but reject it. Someone who actually accepts every offer in the South will eventually be seen as quite rude and mysteriously not get invited back.

Japan, incidentally, combines the careful distinction between the familiar and formal of Germany with the politeness towards strangers (and making offers that you expect the other person will refuse) of the American South.

Anonymous said...

"You" is the formal. We don't say "thee" and "thou" which are the informal.

Robert S. Porter said...

Uh, John, you've provided no evidence for you assertion. In most circumstances it would be replaceable.