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Formality in Austria

The Austrians are a very formal people. I´m not entirely sure why and as a woman from Southern California, I struggle with the rules of formality.
formal handshake When Austrians meet one another, they exclusively use the last name. It´s as if the first name doesn´t exist. On the phone, "May I please speak with Mrs. Pichler?" Receiving letters from any institution, "Dear Mrs. Pichler". Going to a meeting and picking up your nametag for the event, "Pichler of ABC company". Visiting your doctor, "How are you feeling Mrs. Pichler?" I have never heard my last name so many times before in my life!
It gets worse.
In the German language, there is a formal way and an informal way to say the word "you". Slip and use the wrong form of "you" and you risk offending someone. The hard part with this formal/informal way of speaking is when to use which form!
At the beginning it´s easy. If you don´t know someone and have just been introduced, you use the formal way of saying "you". That level of certainty lasts all of five minutes. Here´s the problem. You get introduced, you start chatting and you hit it off. It´s a great conversation and you´re laughing and having a good time together like old buddies. Er... are you still on a formal level with this person? Do you now refer to this person in the formal, or informal?
The good conversation would indicate that you can start using the informal because you have built rapport. The time from introduction to the conversation means the continued use of the formal. Now you think, oh god, do I sound like an idiot if I continue to use the formal? Am I overstepping a boundary if I use the informal?
To actually get to use the informal way of saying "you" you have to ask for permission from the other person. This is a risk because your level of formality and the other person´s can be completely different. You have to feel this one out.
Ikea, the furniture store that we all love, has the most scandalous ads in Austria. They use the informal way of saying "you" in their ads! The Austrians were horrified! Due to their low prices and great design, Ikea seems to have gotten away with it. No other company that I have seen thus far dares to use the same tactic though.
As if referring to people primarily by last name and in the formal way of saying "you" isn´t tiring enough, Austrians have a love of titles. I don´t mean a title like duke, baron, or knight. Nope. I mean doctor, lawyer, engineer, or master´s degree. Yes, they have a title for a master´s degree.
A title is so important in Austria that once received, it actually becomes part of your name! If I were to receive a master´s degree, I would have to formally change my name with the government to Master´s Degree Britta Pichler. And let me tell you, these people slap their title all over the place. Email signatures, letters, business cards, everywhere!
I´m embarrassed to admit, but on my German resume my name is written out as B.S. Pichler Britta. The B.S. stands for Bachelor of Science people, let´s keep our minds out of the gutter! Though a Bachelor´s degree does not receive a title the way a master´s degree does, it still counts for something. I was advised by an Austrian to do it.
So how do I survive in such a formal culture? Easy. The Austrians are just as confused by it as I am. Yesterday I met with a business partner and we were chatting amiably. I slipped and referred to him in the informal. I threw my hands up in despair and said sorry for the slip, I just didn´t know when to use what. He laughed and said he didn´t either. I then asked if we could use the informal to refer to one another and he thought it was a fine idea. Whew, got away with it with at least one person!


special thanks for this section go to:

Britta Pichler from "op-expat.com" for the text contribution from her hilarious observations about life abroad. Visit her website for more intelligent and well-written observations with that special "external view"! 


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