Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Friendship, German style

Some day I'm going to write about a topic that no expat blogger has written about before, that doesn't appear in books like The Xenophobe's Guide to the Germans and Don't Worry, Be German, and that is fresh and new. Today, however, is not that day.

Today I'm writing about friendship.

In the U.S. when two people meet at work, at school, in a bar, at church, or wherever else and determine, initially through smalltalk, that they have enough in common that they could mutually gain from continuing contact, they are friends. It doesn't take more than a few times of getting together for them to introduce or talk about each other as "my friend, Jack/Susan." Americans tend to go from strangers to friends without much in between. (Only an American could have come up with "Strangers are just friends we haven't met yet." ~att. to Will Rogers) During the time in limbo the former stranger is referred to as "a guy I work with" or "a woman I know from church." We use other labels like "neighbor", "sister's boyfriend", "dad's current wife", and so on, but those labels usually indicate someone we don't intend to ever call our friend. With strangers, neighbors, and friends alike, we ask "How are you?" as more of an suffix of "Hi" than as a genuine inquiry.

Germans, on the other hand, have a loooooonnnnngg period of time when two people are Bekannten (acquaintances) before either would ever dare to refer to the other as a friend. If you work together, you are Kollegen (colleagues) and may never become more than that even if you work together for 20 years.

To complicate matters, mein Freund means both/either "my (male) friend" and/or "my boyfriend." So if you are with a mixed group of Germans and Americans on, say, a bus tour through Italy, and you introduce the man you spent much of last evening chatting with although you just met at dinner as "mein Freund, Marco", the other Germans will raise their eyebrows and peg you as a bit of a tart.

It works the same for meine Freundin, which is both/either "my (female) friend" and/or "my girlfriend." To avoid the ambiguity, Germans will say "eine Freundin von mir" for "a female friend of mine." Almost all titles and labels for people make a clear distinction between male and female in the German language: -in on the end of a title or label indicates the person is female.

My husband rented a bachelor flat of a family's house for 14 years. They greeted each other when they passed on the stairs, he knew most of the kids' names, and he knew when their birthdays were because they always had parties on those days. But they were not friends in the German sense until some time after 2004 when a terrible hail storm broke Martin's bathroom skylight and flooded the family's basement. Martin went down to let them know the window was broken and the water was pouring into the top floor, so his landlord/acquaintance stopped bailing out the basement to help Martin fix the window. Then Martin brought down his Wet-Vac to help with the basement, and after the storm blew over, they all sat together tossing down a few glasses of Schnaps and Bier until the wee hours of the wet morning. The storm was the catalyst, and gradually during the next few years, they became friends.

Although in their case there was no abrupt and identifiable date when they became friends, switching from using Mr. and Mrs. to first names, the traditional way to make that transition in Germany involves a carefully orchestrated ceremony. Granted, younger people these days are quicker to move to first names with those of their own generation, but there is a long-established protocol when interacting with strangers: You must address a stranger who is older than you or of higher rank or status with Sie (You, Sir/Ma'am) and use Herr or Frau Dingsbums.* You also use this when you are a customer, speaking to a police officer, yelling at a guy who just damaged your car with a shopping cart, bribing your child's teacher, and so on. Those people will also address you with Sie. Using the informal du with a stranger is insulting, and the American equivalent could be using "Homeboy" or "Yo, Bitch." Unwise when you're trying to conduct business or get yourself out of a sticky situation. Du is reserved for loved ones, pets (though cats prefer Sie), children, immediate and extended family, and God (our Father).

So you and your elderly neighbor have known each other for 15 years or so, you've watered her plants when she was gone, you've bought a case of beer milk for her when she couldn't get out, she brings you a Torte for your birthday, and you're over at her place having coffee one afternoon. After the usual pleasantries she suddenly says to you, "I think it's time we say 'you' to each other [instead of 'you, Ma'am']." BAM! Oh. My. Goodness. You have gained enough of her respect, and she feels comfortable enough around you to address you like her closest friends and ankle-biting grandchildren! This means you can use her first name! Then you realize you don't even know her first name. She's been Frau Butenbahtenblitzer to you for 15 years. No worries - the ceremony goes on and fills in the gaps. You blush appropriately and smile in agreement, she reaches her hand out to shake yours, and she says, "Ich heiße Ursula" (my name is Ursula) and you follow with "Ich heiße Amy." If the time of day is appropriate, you'll toast with a glass of Sekt, wine, or - if your neighbor is from Bavaria - beer. If you're like me, the moment she turns her back you grab a pen and scratch her name on some scrap of paper you have in your purse so you don't forget it. Nothing worse than accomplishing this monumental step and then finding out it's all for naught because you forgot her name by the next morning!

I assure you, American readers, this little ceremony does take place, and it's not cute or quaint. It's an honor. I've witnessed it and I have participated in it. Do remember, though, that if you are the younger person or of lower rank or status, you must not initiate the ceremony. That would be like a private saying to his drill sergeant, "So Dude, can I just call you Bill?"

Once you have achieved friend status with a German, you're in for life. It typically takes a long time to break through the keep-your-distance wall, but once you've done it, you truly are close. And from then on, when she asks you, "Wie geht's?" (How are you?), she actually means it and wants to know your answer.

*Please don't actually use "Dingsbums," because it means "thing-a-ma-bobber". I just use that to represent any last name.


  1. This is a great article! I do get confused on when to use the whole Sie/du thing. For example, I'm in a club with many mature German ladies. They introduce themselves by first name (in many cases, I don't know their last names) so I just go with however they introduce themselves. I do use the Sie, though. They are a very, very friendly group of ladies and have made me feel so welcome.

    I work with some Germans and it's all a first-name basis too -- but then again, our employer is American and we work in a feel-good field that is not corporate. In the area where I live, I've found that when being introduced at parties and things, the Germans I've met there have been very friendly and welcoming too. I've had quite a few people who want to meet up and hang out again after being briefly acquainted. I think this is influenced by several factors: this area has been, for about 50 years or so, heavily populated with Americans so it's not so strange for Germans and Americans to mingle -- and maybe some of our friendship habits (the good ones, at least!) have taken hold? The other thing is that where I live is a university town. There are tons of expat students here so everyone runs with an international crowd, and it's reasonably common for the German students to have been expats or Erasmus students themselves. Either way, I love the way that it is here.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I go with "When in doubt, use Sie", but even that led to an awkward moment for me. At the school where I teach twice a week, I asked the vice principal if he could unlock my door, using Sie. He said - in a very friendly way - "Why on earth are you saying Sie to me?!" I guess they're more laid back there than I expected.

      I also find that most Germans are very forgiving with Americans. They must know that's a difficult concept for us - since not only do we have to pick the correct pronoun and any follow-up pronouns, but then also the correct verb conjugation... That said, on a trip with American students a few years ago we stopped along the Rhein at a touristy shop, and I reminded the students to use German with the cashier. They all did and were quite proud, but after they all bought what they wanted, the cashier said to me, "You know, they all used 'du' with me." Part of me wanted to apologize, and the other wanted to say, "Get over it, Ma'am. These American kids spoke _German_!" :-)