Last week, as I was arriving for a lesson, I met the Managing Director of the company on the way in.
Me: Hey, how’s it going?
Bertilda: Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde will not be in the lesson today.
Me: OK. I have no idea who you’re talking about. So, how are you?
Me: (makes mental note to do a lesson on small talk)
That day, however, the lesson was to be on “Greetings and Introductions”. Only four women work in the office, two in their mid-forties and two in their mid-twenties. With the absence of Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, I only had two students – the MD and her assistant. After establishing once again that Germans are protective of their personal space in business (and pretty much all other) situations, we moved on to the discussion questions.
Me: How do you address the other person? Mister? Ms? First name?
Bertilda: Always Mister or Ms. Never first names.
Ediltrudis: Yes, never first names.
Me: Never? Not even after you’ve known the person for a while and have a good working relationship?
Me: OK. But surely in the office you call each other by your first names? I mean, there are only four of you…
Bertilda: We use Frau plus surname.
Ediltrudis: Yes, always.
Me: So, as soon as you leave this room, where you’re Bertilda and Ediltrudis, you switch back to Frau such-and-such and Frau such-and-such?
Bertilda: Yes, of course. Immediately.
Me: Wow. How long have you been working with Haduwig?
Bertilda: 16 years.
Me: And you still call her Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde?
Bertilda: Yes, of course.
Me: “Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, could you pass the stapler, please?” Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to just use her first name?
Bertilda: (shoots me a look that suggests that the words “easier” and “faster” are not in her vocabulary)
Me: Is it weird for you that I call you by your first names?
Bertilda: A bit but we are get used to it. I think it is different for English speakers.
Me: Getting. Yeah, I’ve worked in America, Australia, New Zealand, England and Ireland and I don’t think I ever called anyone by their surnames.
Bertilda: (disapproving sniff)
Ediltrudis: (obviously trying to throw me a bone) Our Azubis (trainees) – they mostly work in another office – they call each other by their first names and use “du”.
Clearly this was news to Bertilda.
Bertilda: (lowering her glasses and picking up her pen) They do?
Ediltrudis: Well, I mean… I think that… sometimes they might, yes…
Bertilda: (scratching angrily in her notepad) I think we need to have a meeting.
I knew I should probably wrap it up here but I was enjoying myself far too much.
Ediltrudis: Well, you know, they’re young and…
Bertilda: It is a sign of respect. Using surnames and “Sie” is our office culture.
Me: Oh, but in Berlin it’s so hard. Almost everyone immediately switches to “du” and uses first names. Even my Hausmeister told me to call him Burkhard the first time I met him and he’s in his fifties. (gleefully waits for response)