One of the weirdest things for Americans learning German is to know how to say “you.” Like a number of languages, German has a formal and informal way of saying you, i.e. the informal “du”, and the Formal “Sie.” Americans have an aversion to acknowledging social distinctions, which spills into you we think about those we talk with.
I started learning German in 1987 after marrying a German. It has been a slow haul for my German learning—mostly in the company of family, and friends of my wife. For more formal situations, I typically hid behind my wife (no I don’t want to go the immigration office by myself!), and later my children. The end result is that most of my German has been learned in “du” circumstances where the relationship was “pre-negotiated” by my wife. I managed to generally avoid using “Sie” and certainly the awkward moment when the elder person is supposed to propose that the conversation switch from “Sie” to “du.” In the few circumstances were I did it, it felt really awkward.
My colleagues at the university also saved me from such a situation—they speak English, which is an immediate out for dealing with a foreigner like me.
So it is with some pride, that I can now report that after 25 years, I am becoming more comfortable with “Sie.” Our current stay in Germany started in September and I think I have finally become a bit comfortable with being referred to as “Sie” and responding in kind. I even negotiated a switch from the formal “Sie” to “du” in my German class, a process I had to initiate since I am older than my fellow students.
Now, if I could only figure out the more complex German verbs, I would have real progress!