Out of Germany: Foreigner at Sie over what to du about an intimate problem

Click to follow
BONN - Social norms are impossible to get right, when - Maastricht notwithstanding - they vary so radically across every European border, east and west. Should friends or acquaintances be kissed once, twice, three times or not at all? On the hand, or the cheek? Should I kiss only women when saying hello, or does the rulebook specify a peck on men's cheeks (or a bearhug) too? Am I expected to shake hands when saying goodbye, or only when saying hello?

I've more or less given up getting it right and comfort myself that foreigners' mistakes are forgivable. But I usually make a token effort to crack the code. Getting your handshakes or bearhugs right can be another way of getting your verb-endings straightened out. Even if you know you are getting it wrong most of the time, one can at least give a nod towards the local grammar of etiquette.

In one respect, however, I cannot quite bring myself to fit in. Try as I may, I cannot persuade myself to play fully by the German rules, in what you might call the Mr and Mrs Game.

Every European language except English has a tu and vous form, which Britons must become used to. (It is a paradox that Europe's most socially divided and divisive country is also the only place where grammatical divisions of status and familiarity have been abolished.)

I am no sans-culotte radical when it comes to the familiar form. Thus, in Russia earlier this year, my heart sank when my companions in a couchette compartment addressed me, the moment they saw me, with the familiar ty instead of vy. My experience is that ty from a stranger usually means trouble - in this case, far too much vodka from a couple of insistently hospitable arms-smugglers.

I am uncomfortable, too, with the idea - apparently introduced in Sweden some years ago - that the polite ni form should be abandoned, even in banks or formal interviews with the prime minister, in favour of the intimate form.

None the less, Germany's treatment of the problem is something else. Here, it's not just a matter of familiar du versus formal Sie. Here, if you call somebody Sie, you are also expected to call them Herr and Frau. And you may go on calling them Herr Braun and Frau Schmidt for years.

An acquaintance in Bonn described how her mother and a male neighbour sometimes go on holiday together. The sleeping arrangements, she said, are unclear, but the relationship is close. The two of them call each other Herr B and Frau L.

Nor is the formality confined to the peculiar government-city of Bonn. A friend from Real Germany said that she likes to use first names, whenever possible. It sounded admirable and I resolved to follow her example. But she then confessed that she had been severely reprimanded for thus flouting the rules. (She used to live in the United States, which may be part of the problem.)

I was pleased when a friendly civil servant suggested, after we had met only a few times, that we should move away from the Herr Crawshaw-Herr X routine. But he, too, admitted that he was more likely to be on first-name terms with foreigners than with Germans - even those he knew well. Even Chancellor Helmut Kohl has different rules for foreigners than for his compatriots. He is on Sie terms with many colleagues whom he sees daily. And yet, in the authorised German translation of messages to Downing Street, he addresses John Major - with whom he has shared a mere handful of photocalls and summit talks - with the intimate du.

In the workplace, first names are sometimes non-existent. One Berlin politician confessed that he did not know the first name of his press assistant, Frau P. Then, he suddenly remembered. His wife commented, wryly: 'Knows her first name, eh? Suspicious, don't you think?'

Some argue that a gradual change in etiquette is taking place. The formal pronoun is occasionally accompanied by the first name ('Sie, Johann . . .') instead of being paired off with the surname. But this possibility is still seen, in most contexts, as a linguistic mongrel - and is, accordingly, treated with suspicion.

Certainly, there is resistance to too much verbal familiarity. Stern magazine complained about the growing use of du in advertising. It concluded a mini-tirade by asking: 'Hey, since when have we been on du terms, Sie Idiot]' Meanwhile, even the ultimate intimacy is not always immediately accompanied by an instant breakdown of the Herr-Frau divide. A music critic, in a recently published, all-names-altered account of her passionate affair with a colleague, commented that, when they first went to bed together, they were still using Sie. 'At the crucial moment, we used du - for technical reasons, so to speak. But at breakfast time, we were back on Sie terms again.'