This month, I’m going to dedicate a series of posts to the dreaded cultural faux pas.  I’ll share a few of my own red-faced moments – and what I learned as a result.  If you’ve got any stories to share, I’d love to here about it in the comments.

A younger version of myself, traveling in the Munich S-Bahn.

For my first anecdote, I’ll take you back to the year 2006.  I’d just arrived in Munich for a summer study abroad program and should have been beaming with excitement.  But instead, I sat in the back of my back of my cab, my cheeks beaming red for all the wrong reasons.  I’d just committed my first cultural faux pas.

Before getting in the cab, I’d asked my elderly cab driver if I could help him load my significantly heavy luggage into the trunk.  But instead of using the polite form of “you” (Sie), which should always be used with strangers, I had used the more informal du, which should be reserved for friends, family, and other close acquaintances.  As soon as I saw the slight look of offense of his face, I knew what I’d done.  Face, meet palm.

The truth is, if you’re a newbie in a foreign country, you’re bound to make a few cultural missteps.  But you should always try to do your homework beforehand by reading up on the customs, etiquette, and traditions of the country you’re visiting.

Which leads me to one of things I like best about Mango: the cultural notes.  Popping up several times a chapter, they guide you like a friend, providing gentle nudges about what-to-do and what-not-to-do.  Not to mention, they provide a great little “brain break” from all the language-learning you’re doing and keep you interested in the lesson.

Take this cultural note, for example, from Chapter 1 of Mango’s German course:

Ta-da!  A short and sweet explanation about the difference between du and Sie and when to use them.  So hopefully you, dear Mango student, will not find yourself in the same hot water that I did.

Have you ever experienced a cultural faux-pas?  Or is there something you wish you had known before traveling to a foreign country?

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2 Responses to What Not to Du.

  1. Casy Lee says:

    Is this, perhaps, a faux pas linked to conservative regions? I found the north is much more lenient on the formal/informal forms. I find this to be linked generationally and regionally; however, my experience in Munich is non-existent, so I’m curious to know if this is common from your experiences?

  2. Hi Casy,

    Thanks for your question! I’ve actually only traveled in the southern regions of Germany and am not as familiar with the customs in the north, so it’s great to have a second perspective!

    In the city of Munich, I found the use of the formal “Sie” to be more common, but it’s important to note that I was usually interacting with others that I wasn’t familiar with, often as a customer or patron (e.g. restaurants, shops, post office, Standesamt, taxi, etc.) With other students of the same age, I would always use the informal “du”. However, I did find that in the countryside south of the city, terminology became a little more informal.

    To be safe, I fell into the general rule of using “Sie” anytime I didn’t know someone, unless it looked like they were definitely under 30 (and even in this case, I would still use “Sie” if I met the person in a business setting).

    The only time I remember someone remarking that “du” should have been used instead of “Sie” was when my friend asked a 30-some year old stranger for directions. She seemed surprised that he approached her so formally. So I guess you never know! I always preferred to err on the side of caution though.

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