Germany – where formal is normal

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? 

Bertilda: Fine.

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? 

Bertilda: NEVER! 

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.

Ediltrudis: 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)

Bertilda: (flatlines) 

 

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54 thoughts on “Germany – where formal is normal”

  1. Do any of your clients read your blog? I mean, it might help them to know just how devilish you are 🙂 (And what better to learn than by being pushed to the brink … at least now Frau Whatshername knows that her formal style of address is rarity in the modern world.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not in Germany! Berlin is pretty casual about it though in comparison to other places in Germany. That’s why I was so surprised!
      Hmm, a few students know that I have a blog but I’m not sure that they read it – I’ve yet to go viral here the way I did in Latvia haha! Any German I know who reads it finds it funny. Then again, it’s not nearly as scathing as the Latvian one was 😉

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  2. I like how you pushed them to the very brink! This reminds me of working in a school and getting very confused when the same person is referred to by different people as Miss, Barb or Mrs Words. I can never work out who’s who!

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  3. LOL! Oh, this sounds sooooo familiar!
    When we moved to Germany when I was a kid in 1980 my dad had a secretary there at his office. He immediately suggested that she call him by his first name (he had been used to it with his secretary when we lived in Israel after all) and she was scandalized. He tried suggesting it again and again over the 17 years they worked together but she refused to call him anything other than “Herr Doktor S…feld”… And he called her “Frau G…man” till the day he left. In fact, she was even scandalized to learn that my father actually made the coffee at home! How was it able that he, a man of such standing, should do that himself where he had a wife and 8 children who could theoretically have done that for him! 😉

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  4. I spent many years in the Armed Forces and got very used to referring to everyone either by rank or surname (or both), even my buddies, and when I reverted back to civilian life, it took me a long time to get back into the habit of using first names.
    I started a job in the local government and being called ‘Jack’ rather than ‘Anderson’ was confusing – the amount of times I didn’t realise someone was talking to me!

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  5. As an American this would drive me nuts. We call everyone by their first name and sometimes by a nickname. I would probably lose it if people called me “Ms. Field” all day at work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha! Yeah, it’s the same in Ireland! My ex-art director would tuck a newspaper under his arm every morning and tell me he was off to “do his dirt”. Maybe there is such a thing as being overly familiar with your colleagues. The Germans might be on to something 😉 Thanks for commenting, Catie!

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  6. Being a German in England I find these posts hilarious! So true, yet after 14 years in England I often feel the same (Anglo-Saxon) confusion on my visits to Germany. Every time I go, I get caught out by the shops being closed on a Sunday and enraged by the fact that nobody apologises when they bump into me. On the other hand I still wait for the neighbours’ appalled knock on the door when we’re mowing the lawn on a Sunday back in England. And after moving to England I used to meet my former German manager in meetings. Imagine my confusion and discomfort! I didn’t know what to call him! I couldn’t bring myself to call him by his first name, although all my British colleagues did and I had absolutely no problem calling them by their first names. It took some creativity getting through a meeting 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m looking forward to the next post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ha! Yes, I can imagine it’s just as confusing the other way round! And there are benefits to both ways of life – I feel like the police are going to tap me on the shoulder every time I do a “renegade wash” on a Sunday haha! Thanks for commenting and glad it gave you a chuckle! 🙂

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  7. Oh this Anglo-Saxons …
    Isn’t English the only Aryan language without a polite form?
    Instead of this, they have the archaic aristocratically Sir and Madam.

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  8. So. So. Funny! But it’s true. In our school office everyone is Frau & Herr so & so, and I still have no idea who they’re talking about lol! I’m like “who?”. And I also have a double-barrelled name which many people get wrong by calling me by one of them, instead of two. Or worse, pronouncing the German part of my name completely wrong. Someone once asked me if I was French!!

    I’m quite happy to be called “Victoria” or if you insist (cue children), “Mrs. Victoria!”

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    1. Ha, I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to pronounce your surname! I won’t try now as I’m sure I’ll mess it up 😉 You can be Frau V 😉 Hope the new job is going well!

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  9. haha! The “du” or “Sie” thing stresses me out sometimes! I’m so used to using “Sie” when talking to strangers that once when a kid asked me something, I nearly said “Sie” instead of “Du”! My inlaws are good friends with their neighbour of 20 years and they still only “Sie” each other and use their first names. So strange..

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    1. Ha, yeah, my granny and her best friend called each other Mrs… their whole lives! Might start doing it with my friends – try to bring it back. Would be good practice for Germany 😉

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  10. Ottovordemgentschenfelde. Where on Earth did you get that?!?!

    In my office everyone is “per du”, including the boss. One of the first things the original owner said to me on my first day was “we all use first names here – I hope that’s okay for you!”. Obviously my colleagues are all sooo un-German 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  11. (lowering her glasses and picking up her pen)
    OMG I got such an awesome visual!!!
    Russia used to be fairly formal as well, though not to this extent. At my office quite a few people still use the formal address with executive or sub-executive staff (which I guess is Sie?), but most often with just the first name. But I have been addressed by first name + patronimic (“friendly respectful” – as opposed to nearly military last-name-only styling) a few times, and it was weeeeeeird.

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  12. That was soooo hard in Germany! I thought it was weird to be 18 and called Frau… and then a bit later at uni to remember who’s a Doctor/Lektor/… like i care (hey, I’m from the north, people are people regardless of there titles!). But as I mostly was the only not German student I may have initiated a change: back then i still had a Finnish surname impossible for anyone not knowing Finnish to grasp. “Wie bitte? Double I, double t… then ya?!!”
    – how about we use first names here, after all, it is a small class and we all know each other rather well (me for the first time present).😂😃

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    1. Ha ha ha! You’re lucky! O’Grady is no problem for the Germans! But thankfully people just call me Linda anyway which saves me having to learn their looooooooooooooooong surnames!

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  13. Had to laugh when reading this, feeling a bit of schadenfreude, actually. Because I know that the whole formal/informal address system is such a mystery to anyone from an English-speaking country. And while my own attitude has significantly changed (or weakened… I have lived in Ireland for too long…), I actually *do* think there is an advantage to having two ways of addressing people. Sometimes it is quite handy if you have a way of maintaining distance. And frankly, I am often slightly taken aback when I get a cold-call from some insurance or bank, and they immediately launch into calling me by my first name. Hold on – I am a potential client of yours. How about you show me some respect??? Well, you can take the girl out of Germany, but you can’t take the German out of the girl…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, yes, I can understand that! It must be just as jarring the other way round! And actually, I would expect a cold-caller to call me Ms. von Grady 😉 I guess the only people we address by title in Ireland are priests and doctors, maybe police but I haven’t had any direct dealings 😉

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      1. Hehe, HRH Ms. von Grady…
        BTW, I will admit that I am slightly out of practice with the whole ‘du’ and ‘Sie’ sort of thing, and I am getting increasingly addled when I meet German business partners for the first time. Happened to me last year in New York when I encountered a business partner who was of my age. The added bit of difficulty: she is a professor. You know what that means in Germany – use of all titles. I ummed and ahhed a bit, and then actually said to her (in German), “Listen, I’m really unsure how to address you – do we use the formal address?” The woman looked at me, laughed heartily and then said “But does anyone in our business actually say ‘Sie’ anymore???” I was relieved – and embarrassed about my old-fashioned approach… Lesson: Even in Germany, the ‘du’ is becoming more widely-used. Depending on the area of business you are dealing with…

        Liked by 1 person

              1. Hehe – PS: I was in Berlin week after last – to meet aforementioned business partner. Who proceeded to give me a hug and two air kisses upon meeting her. Those Germany – you can never tell what they are going to do next… 😂

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  14. OMG, giggling so hard over here! That office sounds absolutely next level! It really varies down here from company to company but I can’t imagine some of my students who’ve worked together for 16 years still using the Sie. I’ve had a few people who do insist on it, and everyone else treated them like a bit of a novelty. Poor Azubis though, you’ll have to update us on if they got a crash course in formal office culture!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You better! Side note… saw your convo with Lady of the Cakes above and thought I’d throw in that an acquaintance married a Swiss guy and his whole family refers to the grandpa with ‘Sie.’ Not grandma, of course. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  15. Azubis calling each other by their surnames??? This is/was not heard of, not even back in my day(s)! Azubis always say “du” to each other – they are 16, their voices have barely broken, for God’s sake… what kind of company is this?! I think we do need to have a meeting…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ha ha ha! Are you scratching away in your notepad? I guess she wants them to address each other the same way everyone else does! Rules are rules – you need to relearn this when you come back to Germany 😉 What’s it like in Spain?

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      1. In Spain you only say “Sie” if the other person is over 90… In Portugal, however, they are quite formal. My (Portuguese) intercambio, who’s a fairly young guy, told me last week that he addressed his own parents in the formal way… in Spain, they stopped doing that about 50 years ago, as far as I understand.

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  16. Ha! I had a client in Wuppertal once, and visited there quite often, and it killed me that people who had worked together for donkey’s years still referred to each other as Herr Doctor Whatsit 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It still cracks me up too! I know it’s considered normal here but I just can’t get my head around it properly, even after 2.5 years! And I love that people in the shops, etc. wear name tags with Frau… and Herr… on them 🙂

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      1. Yes, I see that! And I guess English is lacking in that respect. I would find it odd if someone didn’t say “Please, call me (first name)” after the first introduction! I guess I would have understood better if the two older ladies addressed each other informally and the two younger ones the same, but that the formal term was the office standard. I’ve also heard that it’s possible to use “du” with Herr/Frau… and “Sie” with a first name… it’s a minefield!!

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