This is one of those Strange German Things.
As an Ausländer, you’re in a parallel universe. And it depends on what sort of Ausländer you are.
Look vaguely foreign and you’re likely to be addressed with Du in a friendly/patronising/dismissive manner.
Like my friend Jesse.
Lt Commander in the Indian Navy and in Hamburg to take command over a new vessel from the shipyard.
He fronts up in civvies at the dockyard’s Customs office to claim sales tax on a radio he’d bought.
Customs officer looks up from his tabloid and says “Was willst Du hier?”
Jesse draws himself up to full height and says in flawless German (which he’d learned in East Germany – India worked both sides back then, too)
“I am an officer in the Indian Navy. You will NOT address me with ‘Du‘ ”
I had it easier.
Didn’t look foreign (though I certainly sounded it to start off) and in a lot of cases in the beginning, you could scam people by addressing them with Du, feigning mortification and trying to reformulate with Sie, upon which they’d often say “It’s OK, I’m cool with Du“.
Of course, the better one’s German becomes, the less you could get away with stuff like that and the distance that Sie gives you has its advantages on occasion.
It gets weird, though, when your new boss is older than you and says “Look, I know you’re older than I am and that it’s your prerogative to offer the Du, but do I really have to order you to….?!”
And then there are those situations where it just seems natural and no-one REALLY needs to take the first step.
Like at the end of a teleconference years ago – me together with the executive board of my UK client in their offices and our team of equivalent rank in Germany. I’d briefed anyone with whom I wasn’t on first name terms that I’d be scamming our client to the effect that we were all close at head office (the client certainly knew about the Du/Sie thing and its significance), that I’d be addressing them by their first names and that we’d go straight back to the formal “Sie, Herr Dr So und So” as soon as we were out of client earshot.
Everyone’s cool with it and…..in pops the CEO unannounced.
Gulp. Took a deep breath, figuring I could sort it out later and jumped in with both feet: “So, what do you think of the proposal, Gunter?”
Not a flicker. CEO talks as if we were the best of friends.
Client team exchanged glances that said “Crikey, he and the CEO are on Du terms…?!” and things went swimmingly.
Teleconference finished, call our team back for a debrief and – before I can get a word in – CEO says “Das hast Du echt gut gemacht”
And it’s been the same ever since…