How to be polite in Germany

German’s have a reputation for being rude. While it’s impossible to know exactly why, it’s certainly due to a number of factors, including their over-politeness, formal mannerisms, inclination toward invading neighbouring countries, so on and so forth.

In contrast, Canadians have a reputation for being polite. Having spent some time living abroad I’ve come to totally disagree with this stereotype. Canadian’s aren’t polite. Canadians are friendly. Very friendly. So are Americans. But smiling and chatting with the check-out lady at the supermarket is not a sign of politeness. For Germans, our over-fondness for the word “sorry” is symptomatic of a lack of determination when pushing through crowds, rather than any real sense of courtesy.

Indeed, for Germans, our habit of showering everyone with faint praise (Keep it up! You’re doing great! You’ll hit it next time lil’’ slugger!) doesn’t show politeness, and certainly doesn’t help little Tommy get any better at baseball. According to comedic ambassador Henning Wehn, it “indicates shiftiness, insincerity, and lack of spine or purpose.”

German’s have no time for this ridiculous friendliness and praise. They’re too busy observing rigid social and linguistic customs that ensure everyone knows their place in society. Like French, which has both a informal you (tu) and formal you (vous), German maintains a distinction between how one speaks to little Tommy (du) and how one speaks to Herr Boss (Sie). Indeed, in the unlikely event that your German university professor has more than one PhD, you may end up in the very awkward position of having to refer to her as “Frau Professor Doctor Doctor Meyer.”

Let us not forget that English once held this distinction between the informal thou and formal you, but gave up on it somewhere in the 17th century due to confusion as to how to address one’s barmaiden after a few too many swigs of ale.

Ask "How are you" here and expect a real response.

Unlike French, which uses “vous” as a sign of respect, “Sie” is used to create distance between speakers. When I asked one boss why he Sie-d an employee he’ been working with for years, and with whom he had shared many a meal and business trip, he insisted he wouldn’t be able to ever to criticize her if they called each other by their first names and used “du” (for calling someone by Sie must be accompanied by a Frau / Herr relationship).

While after the annual office Christmas party in Canada you might be worried about facing your colleagues after getting a little too hammered, this situation is additionally awkward in Germany, where you may have inadvertently started “du”ing a colleague in your drunken state.

The German’s aren’t rude; they’re just overly polite, stuck in an antiquated language system that forces them to observe rigid social hierarchies. So next time you’re over here, be prepared to share a firm handshake, and a steady gaze. And don’t try any of that ridiculous French cheek kissing stuff.

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One Response

  1. Fascinating social commentary, as ever. 🙂

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