Last week, in my extended speculation on the outwardly focused German character, I wrote:
Time and again, I’ve been surprised when someone I’ve met just once before — briefly — gives me a big clap on the back and a grin and wants to know all about how I’m doing. For a country that’s outwardly so formal, people can be awfully familiar. I’m still trying to sort out exactly how these concepts fit together, and I think it has something to do with people knowing their place, as silly as that sounds. When two colleagues who have known each other for years are still addressing each other as Herr Schmidt and Frau Müller, there’s no false pretension of friendship. In America, we call our bosses by their first names and attempt the same conversational tone with them as we would with friends, even if we don’t like them and feel incredibly phony in the process. In Germany, I think, by establishing the boundaries of the relationship at the outset, people can be much more comfortable and cordial within those boundaries. And when people do meet as friends, without any sort of formality, there’s an instant sense of kinship that forms. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong, but I think there’s logic to it.
A fellow Burnsie in Frankfurt (check out her excellent blog here) took issue with my musings — or rather, told me that they don’t jibe with her experience with Frankfurters. I wondered if people in Frankfurt were really more inward-looking than other Germans (as many Germans themselves will tell you) or if I just missed the mark in my excessive generalizations.
But now I see that at the very least, I’m not alone in my take on the matter. I’ve been reading Thomas Geoghegan’s book Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, a personal narrative examining the differences between the German and American social systems, and I just came across this passage:
I wish I could have hit the ground running. I wanted to meet people — now. Back in the U.S., my German tutor, who was German but of Korean descent, complained to me about this kind of thing. She was critical of the way Americans wanted to have instant friendships.
“Here,” she said, “in America, you meet people and you hit a certain level very fast. In America, at first there aren’t any boundaries. But then later you have to go back to the start and try to set up boundaries.”
“And it’s different with your German friends?” I said.
“Oh, yes. Over there you start out with the boundaries. They’re all set up. And then, because they’re there, you can really go deeper.”
This isn’t 100% what I was saying — it contradicts my experience of quick-forming pseudo-friendships in Germany — but the whole thing about boundaries allowing for deeper understanding is so close to my point it’s practically plagiarism. (On my part, I guess — the book was published last month.)
That said, when I come back to America, I won’t miss the constant quandary of whether to address someone as du or Sie and as Peter or Herr Richter. There are boundaries to boundaries.