Sorry for the click-bait title, but I’m not a cultural anthropologist.
Not surprisingly, I grew fond of Germany over my two years living there. I even got used to things I sometimes found annoying (and I am speaking generally here), like the Germans’ adherence to minor rules, their formality, their being so uptight so much of the time (see photo above). Sometimes, I’d even see these traits as endearing. It was just how the Germans were. So, after this summer—my first time back in four years—I was surprised to see Germans have loosened up a bit. It had been a long time for me, sure, but not a long time for a culture. Here are two things I noticed.
1.) Germans Jaywalking
When I first moved to Germany, I noticed local pedestrians, standing patiently, waiting for the red “don’t walk” lights to turn green. They’d never jaywalk.* I, on the other hand, tried to play by the rules, to be a good ambassador to America as a Fulbrighter, to wait on pedestrian lights like a fool.
But one day I was in a hurry. Class was starting, and the school’s copier was broken, so I had to run a quarter mile to a copy shop. It was a gray, windy day, and the streets were bare. Running back, I noticed the light was red, stopping me from crossing one small lane of traffic. I looked around—there were no cars in sight. Next to me was an old man waiting. I was worried I wouldn’t make it back to school in time. I knew he was going to say something, but I went anyway. “It’s goddamn RED!” I heard him shout behind me. Yeah, and the world didn’t end.
So four years later, I noticed a group of Germans walking across a four lane road, not even at the crosswalk. It was amazing! I smiled, impressed that the group had the audacity to rebel so blatantly. But then I saw it again. And again. Later, I was jaywalking myself, late at night with four other Germans. I turned to one and said, “This is un-German, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” she said, after thinking about it for a second.
*Well almost never. Certain Germans, usually lower income, would break these types of rules. These German were labeled Asis, short for “anti-socials.”
2.) Germans using the informal you.
I tried to play by the rules in Germany, but I don’t believe in formalities, unless I’m trying to assert my Southerness in New England. The German I learned was very colloquial, full with slang and abbreviations.* I’d never use the formal you, Sie, if the stranger I was talking to was within ten years of my age. I mean that seemed rude to me. What can I say? I was young and stubborn. I could only be so much of a good ambassador.
I remember getting my hair cut in Nürnberg, using the informal you, du, with the barber the entire time. She’d always respond by addressing me with Sie. One exchange went something like this:
“Kannst du zwei Centimeter schneiden?”
“Wollen SIE die Friseur mit Maschine oder ohne Maschine?”
I refused to budge from my du stance. She refused to budge from Sie, probably scared I wanted to ask her out. It was a battle that ended in a draw. And she was in the right—Sie is how you’re supposed to handle these interactions.
So, four years later, I did a double-take when the middle-aged woman at the second hand store addressed me with du. Then, while I was eating at a restaurant, I noticed a waitress addressing a table with ihr, the informal plural you. I turned to Janine, the girl I was eating with.
“Wow, she said ihr to that table! Is that normal?”
“At a restaurant, sure.”
* I remember getting corrected by the very formal headmaster at my first school. After he asked a question, and I told him the German equivalent of “nah,” he told me, “It is NEIN in High German.”
These changes, though minor, seem to show a cultural shift. While I don’t think Germans will ever turn a blind-eye to egregious law-breaking, like walking in the bike lane, I have to admit I enjoyed the more laid-back Germany. Maybe in a few decades, Germans will start small-talking. Anything is possible. Still, no cultural change is black and white. While hanging out with Dieter, my old mentor and friend, I brought up the changes I’d noticed. He had noticed more. “Remember how you said people run red lights in America? They’ve started doing that here too. I think it’s the new generation.” Maybe in the social media age, the look-at-me age, selfishness has conquered German adherence to rules, the old cultural norms. I’m not an expert, so I don’t know. For now, I’ll just enjoy hearing du during my next German haircut.