I've made quite good progress in German since the days I was too scared to open my mouth in conversation class at university. These days I'm more likely to talk too much, or too familiarly so that the other person thinks I'm either rude or ignorant. My accent is not strong and if I'm really lucky and the person I'm speaking to is a little absent-minded or busy they might even think I'm a native German speaker. But I always give myself away when it comes to saying you.
German isn't as complicated as some language when it comes to the polite forms. On paper it's simple: with strangers, superiors, university professors or anyone else you want to show respect to use Sie. With friends, close colleagues, children or people you meet at parties and other cool and relaxed places use du. If only it were that simple.
To give you a good idea of the complexity of the Sie/du divide here is a recent scenario. At the bank where I work a department has a new board member. He insists on the du form for everyone, regardless if secretary or manager. All of my students mention this fact when I asked them about him. Their opinions, however, on the relative merit of this radical move were vastly different.
Some felt it was a great break with the past of the bank and the rigid hierarchy which led to some colleagues being dutzt and some Sietzt. They thought it showed an appreciation of all members in the department, regardless of how closely they worked with the boss. Sounds good to me.
But wait. Others felt very differently. This shows disrespect for the traditions of the bank, they said. It's an unrealistic and insincere intimacy. And above all, it's an emotionally charged act, to require everyone to use the more familiar term. For those who aren't used to it, it makes them very uncomfortable. Is this a good first move?
I was left fairly baffled by the whole thing. I could appreciate the logic of both arguments but thought it was placing a lot of emotional value on to one little word. Surely, I thought, they can realise that objectively it's not that important? That it means the same thing in the end, if you say Would you be so kind (Sie)or Do it (du)?
And then, this morning someone called for my boss while the secretary was out so I answered the call. It was all going well when out of the blue this complete stranger calls me du. She must have thought I was a lowly secretary or just very young, because I obviously didn't know the rules of phone etiquette (but why? I'll never know) and so wasn't worthy of the respectful term. I was outraged. It seems I have picked it up after all. Now if I could only remember to use the appropriate verb form which follows...