With all du respect
“AT 2.12 our work was finished. At 2.15 we called each other Horst and Guido. This is the beginning of a great friendship.” That is how Guido Westerwelle, the Free Democratic leader in Germany’s coalition government, broke the news that he and Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union would henceforth address each other by the familiar du rather than the formal Sie. Since Mr Seehofer had called Mr Westerwelle a crybaby just weeks earlier, it was a touching reconciliation. But how much warmth does the intimate du convey?
It used to be so simple. Relatives, friends, children and dogs were du; everyone else was Sie. The offer of du, usually by an older interlocutor, was not made lightly. But this formula has become scrambled during the past 40 years. Germany is not America, where everyone is on first-name terms except in the doctor’s surgery. The rules are now confusing, so that instead of guarding the borders between friendship and acquaintance, Sie and du often now smuggle coded messages across them.
It started with 1968ers who impudently called their professors du. Later generations of students reverted to Sie. But with each other, indeed with everyone of student age, du predominates. Bouncers at Berlin’s clubs are gesiezt but bartenders are geduzt. Shoppers at upmarket KaDeWe are Sie but in shops packed with young Germans even those not so youthful may be called du. Annett Louisan, a pop singer, laments the passing of Sie: “This distance adds a little more/to something that would be a bore/‘What can I do for Sie?’/stimulates wild fantasy.”
In less erotically charged settings Sie holds sway. Banks, law firms and ministries remain bastions of Sie, though egalitarian companies like Sweden’s IKEA have converted to du. It is easier to sack a Sie than a du. Sometimes du can even be dangerous: try it on a policeman and you may end up paying a fine for insulting an officer.
Politics has its own rules. In the Social Democratic Party (SPD) it would be an insult to siezen a “comrade”. Communists in East Germany were du to each other, which gives it a sinister ring to some Ossis. In conservative circles and across party lines du is not yet automatic. Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic chancellor, never said du to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her SPD foreign minister, though she apparently already does so to his successor, Mr Westerwelle.
In Mr Seehofer’s case, as the older man, he almost certainly made the first move with Mr Westerwelle. But that has not stopped him repeatedly sniping at the new foreign minister. In this case du seems less a profession of friendship than a screen for hostility.