Professional Politeness

You Can Say You to Me

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Managers like Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche are trying to be more informal. A particularly German dilemma: To "du" or not to "du"? Source: Daimler AG

Pronouns matter. In the English-speaking world, the third-person variety has become a hot topic with even grammatical authorities like the US news agency, Associated Press, determining that they or them is acceptable as a gender neutral pronoun. Addressing someone as “he” or “she” without first inquiring into the person’s pronoun preferences, for example, is a surefire way to get kicked out of a “safe space.” Microaggressions aside, words matter.

In the German-speaking world, and with some notable exceptions, gender neutrality is simply not practicable. It would be wrong to remark that words don’t carry weight in Germany, once known as “the land of thinkers and poets.”

More to the point, grammar has become an increasingly crucial theme in the workaday world in Germany. Formal and informal terms of address – a sentence’s subject, object and even, too, its possessive pronouns – are becoming muddled, leading to confusion when it comes to how a fellow worker or citizen ought to be addressed.

In the English language, this dilemma has long since passed. The world “thou”, the informal variation of “you”, all but disappeared from the vernacular hundreds of years ago. For English speakers, the division between the formal and informal “you” more or less belongs to ancient history.

In Germany, this division is very much alive, even if it is becoming confused. In a nutshell, this confusion is blurring lines between the professional and the private realms. “You can say you to me,” is the stuff of German urban legends. One version of the story says that former President Heinrich Lübke told the Queen of England, in English, this. Another version has Helmut Kohl uttering the words to then US president, Bill Clinton. Regardless, the phrase – and even the story behind it – captures the ceremony with which many Germans usher in the informal you into a relationship. In a professional setting, it’s use is a sign of familiarity or even equality.

Researchers have warned that compelling employees to address one another informally is dangerous for myriad reasons.

Normally, Günter Althaus is a laid-back kind of guy. One topic, however, rankles the head of the ANWR Group, an international confederation of retailers and franchise systems: The abandonment of the formal “you” – that’s “Sie” in German – in favor of the cult of the informal “you”, which is “du” in German. He views the behavior of his manager colleagues as “downright cavalier,” says Mr. Althaus: “I don’t think it’s acceptable for employers to tell their employees how they should talk to and address each other.”

For his part, Mr. Althaus uses the informal “you” to address merely a dozen of his roughly 600 employees across 14 European countries. He only wields “du” when addressing those he has known for a long time. Among executive board members, the mutual use of the informal “you” was only agreed upon after a period of four years together, according to Mr. Althaus.

While it might seem Mr. Althaus belongs to the old guard in his insistence on formality in the workplace, his explanation of the utility of the formal is deeply grounded in his professionalism: “Negative feedback, for example, doesn’t get needlessly barbed or unprofessional.”

He’s certainly not alone in his insistence on professional distance – countless academics support his claims. A whole row of researchers have warned that compelling employees to address one another informally is dangerous for myriad reasons: “off the record,” informal language isn’t suitable at every company; not everybody appreciates the informal form of address, and it makes cooperation more complicated – for the boss and for employees. In short, blurring linguistic lines makes it difficult for a hierarchy to deliver on its promises of efficiency.

The rise of the informal has spread throughout the hierarchy. Instead of tailored suits, for example, DAX executives like Dieter Zetsche of Daimler and Oliver Bäte of Allianz have worn jeans and sneakers at public appearances. Klaus Gehring, head of the Schwarz Group, explained in an email that all employees in the company could henceforth address one another by their first names.

In fact, Mr. Gehring took enforcing the informal to a new extreme. Employees who use the formal “you” at work, he says, are isolating themselves: “Those aren’t the kinds of people we need.”

“Traditionally, we Germans only use the informal ‘you’ to address people we are close to, or with whom we’ve developed a certain connection.”

Leo Kretzenbacher, linguist, University of Melbourne

Inspired by the familiar, laid back spirit of tech companies in Silicon Valley, informality in speech and dress has become widespread at German companies. The informal “you” is now used across hierarchies at one-third of German companies, according to a study published a few months ago by consultancy Kienbaum and Stepstone, an online jobs portal.

At the core of the argument in favor of using the informal “you” is the idea that the modern boss should no longer reign over employees. If all employees are brought closer together by doing away with formal language barriers, the thinking goes, feelings of proximity and warmth will prevail, benefitting everyone.

Not everyone, however, is convinced. “Traditionally, we Germans only use the informal ‘you’ to address people we are close to, or with whom we’ve developed a certain connection,” says Leo Kretzenbacher, a linguist of German heritage at the University of Melbourne, adding that the formal “you” is more a sign of mutual respect than anything else.

The rise of the informal “you” can put employers and employees alike in an uncomfortable bind. This isn’t always the case, though. According to Carsten Mickeleit, founder and head of Cortado Holding, a Berlin-based software house, “as a boss, you can use the informal ‘you’ respectfully and keep a proper distance. The relations between people are decisive, not the form of address.”

In the English-speaking world, language has come to represent the struggle between the politically correct and, well, politically incorrect. In Germany, the debate surrounding formal versus informal language represents an uncomfortable blurring of the private and the public, the personal and the professional.

In other words, the rallying cry of a past generation – “the personal is the political” – seems to be morphing into “the personal is the professional.” It’s no wonder then, that many in Germany’s conservative business circles, where managers say what they mean and mean what they say, are feeling uncomfortable.


This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication to Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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