Siezen vs. Duzen: A Polite American’s Nightmare

[The Goethe-Hafis Monument in Weimar.]

Even though I’ve been a student of German for about 10 years now, I still struggle with figuring out when to use the polite form and with whom. It’s obvious to call your boss and older strangers by Sie (the formal form of you) and not per Du (the informal form of you). Of course, one can always go with Sie when unsure because it’s obviously better to speak more politely the first time around. However, I find that despite subtle clues by the individuals I talk to, I tend to reluctantly continue with Sie until the person directly tells me to go with Du. I say reluctantly because I’m aware that the gap between the person and me with Sie could be quite easily closed if only I wasn’t being so stubborn.

Before I brag about my journey from Sie to Du with certain individuals this year (that’ll be another post), I’ll explain my reluctance in going with Sie rather than Du.

[Soviet Cemetery in Weimar]

My parents raised me in a typical, Vietnamese fashion: you show respect to your elders, especially in linguistic mannerisms. Vietnamese, like many other Asian languages, has an inherent system of hierarchy built in through the use of pronouns. There is a set “I” in literary and philosophical uses, but in terms of your relationship to people, you end up talking about yourself in the third person. If you talk to your parents, you use the word, “child”, as the pronoun for “I”. Talking to your aunt? Then, you’d use “niece/nephew”. And so on, so forth.

This is also why age is such an important factor in your relationships because age dictates hierarchy. It’s not just in “I”, it’s also in the way you say “you”. If you’re a dude who’s older than me, I’d have to refer to you as “older brother”, regardless if you’re my actual brother or not. If my siblings and I were to hypothetically speak to each other in Vietnamese, I would have to refer to myself as “older sister” while calling my younger brother and sister the pronoun for “younger sibling” as “you.” Likewise, they’d have to refer to me as “older sister” if they want to say “you”.

[Schiller’s House in Weimar]

Now, here’s my dilemma with the German language (and sometimes with the English language too): when people subtly let me know that I can, right off the bat, interact with them per Du, I cringe up, hesitate, ponder a bit too long and end up blurting out “Sie”. Many Germans have been a bit confused at my insistence on Sie and -because I’m a foreigner- subsequently retract their Du offer in order to make me feel comfortable. The problem is, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I’m only being a stubborn, polite Asian girl by insisting on Sie, not because I feel more comfortable with this pronoun due to my German lessons, but going back to the default my parents taught me. In Vietnamese: When you’re younger than the person you’re interacting with and if the person is considerably older (or an acquaintance), you always respond with “Yes, ma’am/sir” or “No, ma’am, sir”. Because of this polite response, it’s inherent that you end up siezen-ing with your elders anyways, while your elders end up duzen-ing with you.
My dilemma with German is that I tend to forget that many Germans don’t do the “I’ll-duzen-you-while-you-siezen-me” thing unless they’re your grandparents’ age. You’ll notice what I mean in my next post when I recount my journey from Sie to the coveted Du territory 😀
[Large, plastic sheet music hanging in the trees outside of the Liszt House in Weimar]
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