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Formalities of Germany

Howdy from Germany! I’m very happy to have this opportunity to tell you what it’s like to live and work as a foreigner in this beautiful country. I thought I should start off with the formalities, which are actually different here than in the U.S. This is a country where formalities are taken seriously, starting from a very young age.

It could come from the fact that German is one of those languages that has more than one version of “you.” The informal “du” which you use with your family and close friends is the English version of “thee” – so we have an equivalent, we just don’t use it anymore. There is also the formal “Sie” which is for everyone other than “du” and it’s also the plural version of “you.” As a foreigner, I am somewhat excused from following this strictly. If for example I mistakenly use the informal “du” when talking with my son’s teacher, she would just think it was a grammar mistake because German isn’t my first language. It becomes tricky for my Austrian husband though. When we meet other parents at school functions, my husband will whisper “do we ‘du’ or ‘Sie’ them?” and I’ll answer with me it’s about 50-50 what I will call them, so he should do what he would do without me.

Another formality here is that I am virtually always called “Frau Exler” (Mrs. Exler), even by women I consider good friends and have known for years. If someone knows that I have a doctorate, they might call me “Frau Doctor.” Because my husband also has a doctorate, I am also “Frau Doctor” by virtue of marrying someone with a doctorate. This can be handy if you forget someone’s last name, but remember their profession – it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Hello Mrs Butcher” to the butcher’s wife if you pass her on the street.

Before my son was born, I taught English in Frankfurt and the school where I worked encouraged us to have our students call us by our first names. One man refused to call me Jill, and insisted I call him by his last name as well. He told me, “If we didn’t play in the sandbox together and we don’t have the same last name, we should not use first names when we speak together.”

My son is growing up learning these formalities, and he not only shakes hands with his teachers, he shakes hands with his fellow classmates as well. If he’s invited to play with friends after school, he knows to shake hands with his friends as well as their parents, and his friends all shake hands with me when they play at our house. My son was called by his nickname Ali for his first two years of elementary school, and he used “du” with his teachers. In third grade, school in Germany becomes more formal (more on that in another blog), and he is now called Alexander, and uses “Sie” with his teachers.

So as an American, I am happy to introduce myself to you as Jill, but if you do not feel we are close enough to speak so informally yet, you may call me Mrs. Exler.


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