The do-si-do is a square dance step but I am just as bad at square-dancing as I am at trying to figure out when it is appropriate to use the German formal address “Sie” and when an informal “du” will suffice. Usually “Sie” is used with people you don’t know well, unless you’re under 25 and so are they, or also with people to whom you want to show respect. (Wake up! I’m not finished with this entry yet!) However, when I addressed a total stranger the other day with “Sie,” he laughed at me and explained that “everyone is informal here.” OK.., so it was at a salsa club, and maybe the sweaty bodies twisting around each other should’ve tipped me off. On the other hand, I asked a German professor if I could address him informally, and although he teaches in English and assigns American-style spontaneous work to loosen the students up, and he looked at me with impatience: “That is not the German system.”
Yep, good friend of mine, who is admittedly a couple decades older, used formal “Sie” with me for over a year. And I tried to convince a taxi driver the other day that I really wouldn’t mind being informally addressed, but no dice: “Sie.” But here’s the kicker: I had an internship in the Berlin government, the Germanic bureaucratic system that inspired Kafka’s The Trial, and the entire office advised me the first day: “We’re informal here.” Looking back, they must’ve been liberal hippies in grey-pants-suit disguise.
At the internship, I also had to learn to write formally: “Very Honored Mr. Gutmann, Please let us know if you shall attend the luncheon on Tuesday. With sincere greetings, Government Office AT3.” Seeing my astonishment, a co-worker asked, “Well, how would you write a letter to the President in English?” She chuckled to herself, and guessed “Dear Mr. President?”
Then again, I was at New York’s Natural History Museum with a German friend the other day and we were trying to get a picture in front of some very cool dinosaur bones. A patient security guard took four different photos for us. Afterwards, my friend whispered to me, “Should we give her a little tip?” I said no, thinking it would be rude. But I really couldn’t explain to her just why it would be rude; “We’d be implying that she didn’t do it to be nice, or that we were better in some way,” I said, but that didn’t really sound right. Especially since we tip for all kinds of things in the US, in a system so Byzantine that entire articles are written about what to tip your doorman, manicurist, babysitter, psychic hotline advisor, etc. during the holidays. And in fact, there are probably plenty of Americans who would’ve given her a tip—did I stiff this poor, hard-working woman? Maybe I’m the idiot in my own country as well.
The point here is fairly toothless: cultural relativism. It seems that manners have a hint of the arbitrary everywhere you go.
(By the way, if you choose to post in response to this entry, please address me as “Highly-esteemed Blogger Arden.” In Italics.)