Why We're Weird

A recent Washington Post article Tyler Cowen (who else?) linked to makes fun of
Germany, a society given to formality where even longtime neighbors insist on addressing each other using their surnames
And then there's the "Du"/"Sie" distinction. Usually, "Du" goes with the first name and "Sie" with the last, but not always!

People, this may seem weird to you, but there are at least two good reasons why we have these rules.

First, given that applying the "Du"/"Sie" and first name/last name distinctions depend in quite subtle ways on interactions between a) situation, b) differences in social status, which are influenced, but not determined, by age differences, c) the absolute age of the person being addressed and d) the level to which you are acquainted with the person, it is no surprise that foreigners in Germany struggle with this. Which is a source of endless amusement to Germans. When I was sixteen, a French peer once addressed me as "Sie". That was hilarious!

Second, they provide a rite of passage. Due to these rules, we can tell when we've actually (as opposed to legally) become adults. That's on the day when you get addressed by teenagers as "Sie" for the first time. I still remember my event very well. It's a bit shocking at first, but you get over it.

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