You Can Say You To Me20 Nov 2007
Now that I've stuck my foot firmly in my mouth with regards to Ami, I'll now try to stick it in even further with a couple of more German terms, namely the second-person pronouns "Du" and "Sie". In English we did away with the informal forms "thee" and "thou" ages ago, but in German one still has to sort out the formal "Sie" and the informal "Du".
When we took over the restaurant we made the conscious decision to address all employees as "Du" and by first name and invite them to address us the same way. For one thing, we wanted to send a signal that we were going to be very involved in the restaurant and be very accessible to all employees. The staff were pretty much all "duzing" one another anyway, and we wanted to be included. Our own experience with "Du" at the workplace had been good... Frauke had always been on a first-name basis with her top-level subordinates, and I had been in the IT industry where "Du" is the norm. In addition, we didn't to play any favorites. In any workplace you start "duzing" a few employees, and you end up the appearance that some employees are more favored than others. Finally, we wanted to remove a barrier to communication... it's a lot shorter and quicker to say "Frauke" than "Frau Petersen-Hanson".
I know from experience the switch can be somewhat unnerving. After working in a traditional German office environment (well, as traditional as working mostly with expats can be), I was floored to be addressed as Du by the CEO on my first day working at an IT firm. The novelty and cuteness wears off after a few days, though, and it becomes normal.
Our results in the restaurant have been mostly positive. The new hires pick up on it right away, and the old hands after a time have gotten used to our first names, though some still use the Sie pronoun. That's OK... we're not playing IKEA and forcing everyone to say Du to one another. Interestingly, it's the foreign-born staff that has put up the most resistance. I guess after having learned Du and Sie in a new language, it's hard to shift gears. Or maybe we haven't communicated our reasons well enough.