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.
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]