You can say You to me.

I had a business meeting last week with three people that I have known for years. With two of them I was “per Du”, as they say here. That means that we had agreed to address each other with the less formal version of “you” at some stage. This is much more than just agreeing to use a different word – it signifies a new level of familiarity and friendship. It’s also much easier for an Englishman because Du sounds like you, whereas the more formal Sie (pronounced Zee) is less intuitive.

I have always been quite generous about giving people permission to use the “Du” form with me. I get away with it by saying that in England we all use first names anyway and it’s too complicated for me to remember who are my “Du” acquaintances and who are in the “Sie” club. My business colleagues cut me a lot of slack because I am a Brit, but my excuses are real.

Like in many languages, this whole business of which you form to use is a big deal. There are certain rules governing who is able to “offer” the friendly form and who should keep quiet. Generally it is the older or more senior person who should offer to switch to the friendly form. Once the offer has been made, the two parties will shake hands and introduce themselves with their first names. In a business environment, some bosses are reluctant to offer even their most trusted and long-term colleagues the Du form because it might erode professionalism, be seen as a weakness or a loss of respect. More old-school employees don’t actually want to be on Du terms with their boss.

Germans (and probably French, Italians and Spanish) seem to have an extra gene which is missing from the English. They have an amazing capacity for remembering exactly who is a Du and who is a Sie. This puts me at a disadvantage, especially in the business world. Often the Du form is ushered in at slightly boozy dinner meetings or post conference drinks. This makes it even more difficult to remember who is who on which side of the Du/Sie balance sheet. I have often forgotten and inadvertently dropped back into the Sie form with newly formed “Du Friends”. Rather than comment on this, they are left wondering if they offended me in some form so that I chose to revert to the more professional, but distant Sie form.

It’s all normal and natural for Germans but complicated and contrived for me. Which is why at the meeting I finally said to the only non-Du person at the table that I would appreciate it if we could move to Du. It was just too tiring to keep switching. He immediately agreed and we ended up doing a deal and getting some work done.

Oh, I forgot – the title. “You can say you to me.” This is supposedly a quote from Helmut Kohl. The revered ex-Chancellor was not a very good English speaker. He wanted to convey a new sense of warmth and trust to some or other world leader by inviting him into the Du club. “Sie können Du zu mir sagen.” doesn’t translate so well into English.

Bis morgen.

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