More Musings on Formality

Over in Frankfurt, Krista runs with — and then challenges — my hypothesis that German conventions of formality can actually create more comfortable interactions between people. She writes:

I’m not certain that this proclivity toward a healthy social life necessarily results in stronger personal relationships. Yes, German formality allows more honesty in interpersonal relationships, but that doesn’t mean that more German relationships develop past superficiality than do American relationships. My solid conversations have been at a minimum here (after all, I’m still a stranger), but among those I’ve had, a high percentage have included an admission, in one form or another, by a German that he or she isn’t relationally satisfied. That’s not to say that Germans are any different from Americans in this regard: The conversations in both countries reveal similar longings. After all, people, whether formally German or informally American, fail one another. Over and over again. […]

So, what say you, blog nation? Does American lack of formality hinder honest relationships? Does German formality create a societal structure that allows real relationships, once formed, to thrive?

To which I say: I hope not. I am the opposite of a formal person. I can’t really address someone as “Mr. X” or “Mrs. Y” with a totally straight face. Some kids are raised that way; I wasn’t. I find arbitrary formality to be pointless and anachronistic. BUT … I expected that the higher degree of (at least superficial) formality in German society would create walls between people, and I haven’t really found that. Instead, I’ve been struck by the occasional warmness between people who address each other on a last-name basis, and by the downright chumminess between people — even virtual strangers — who call each other “du.” There is, to an extent, a sense of comfort that comes with operating withing prescribed boundaries. As strange as I find it to call my editor “Herr Seidl,” I have to imagine a young German would find it even stranger to call his middle-aged boss “Chuck.” If the former seems arbitrary, the latter must seem artificial.

I’ll also just clarify that I’m not in any way passing judgment on the depth of people’s long-term relationships — after seven short weeks here, how could I? Instead, I’m talking mostly about first impressions: the rather reassuring sense of knowing one’s place in more formal interactions, and the more meaningful bond that therefore forms between new acquaintances who converse casually.

And of course the observations I’ve made here in Berlin may really apply just to Berlin. I was talking to a Burns Fellow based in Munich tonight, and it does seem that, just as social conventions in New York aren’t the same as those in Natchez, people behave pretty differently in Munich from in Frankfurt, and in Frankfurt from in Berlin. For all I know, in the far-flung regions of West Berlin I’ve yet to explore, they use last names for their friends, first names for their enemies, and profanity for strangers.

Seems unlikely, but you get my point.

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One Response to More Musings on Formality

  1. kristaj says:

    19 Sept. 2010
    Sehr geehrter Herr Wiener,
    truce. I think we’re saying the same thing here 🙂 Happily, three people asked me for directions here in Berlin today. I might not be as formal as most Germans, but at least I look like a real “Frau.”
    Mit freundlichen grüßen,
    Frau Kapralos

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