Hustysk Helen svarar: How do I display my affection to a German girl?

It’s finally May,  the sun is out, it’s spring, it’s my favorite season! And: Love is in the air. So Husytsk Helen will answer a crucial question:

“How do I show my love to a German girl?”

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If you are strolling on the streets of the Rhineland these days, you will find trees erected at random spots. Lovely birch trees decorated with colorful crepe paper and adorned sometimes with hearts saying, “Nicole” or “Julia”. You thought the reserved German would discreetly declare his love in a text? Privately tell his beloved how great she is? Swipe her right on Tinder?

Oh, no, the Maypole custom is a public display of romantic interest if there ever was one! Everyone on the street knows someone loves you – and goes through the trouble of cutting down a tree for you to put it up in front of your house. So if your girlfriend doesn’t get the hint or is playing hard to get – why not try the German way and confront her with a tree!

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P.S.: Because regional differences are a big deal in Germany, Northern Germany follows a slightly different love tree schedule: there, the birches are put out during Pentecost and called Penecost Trees, not Maypoles.

Hustysk Helen svarar: Am I a man?

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It has been a while since I last had a question to answer in this category but today your Hustysk is back! The reason is the German tax system. I know, that sounds really boring but trust me there is a lot of money to pick up from the German tax offices. Since my friend Kerstin who is a total tax pro helped me with declaring my taxes, I’ve become the person who peptalks everyone into filing their taxes, too. Actually, I started suspecting that the German state spreads the rumor that doing taxes is extremely complicated and super difficult in order to a) prevent people from demand their tax refund b) subsidize tax advisers. I mean, if half of the Germans, panic-stricken when just looking at the tax forms, decide to not take back what the state owes them, then the state has a lot of money left.

I’ve gone on about how awesome tax declarations (or rather refunds) are forever toward my co-worker so eventually, she was convinced and sat down to do her taxes. And this is where my role as your personal German comes in. She came back to work and sat, “I can’t do my taxes, there is no form for me because I am not married!”

How do I do my taxes if I am an unmarried woman?

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The German forms for tax declaration only two fields: A – the subject to taxation/husband and B – wife. The whole system assumes that you are married and that it is first and foremost the male spouse who has an income. And of course, the couple is taxed together, not separately.

German tax law also supports the houswife marriage with its Ehegattensplitting law from 1958. I find it complicated, but I guess in a nutshell, it means if one spouse earns more (which in Germany is almost always the husband), tax law rewards the couple if the wife does not work at all. It’s literally financially better for the couple if the lesser earning wife just stays home. Welcome to 2016.

If you grew up in Sweden, like my co-worker, this all is rather puzzling. Do I need to change my gender identity to declare my taxes? Am I a man now? Should I be a man to pay taxes? Are all working Germans men? The answer is, kind of, yes.

If you are a single working woman, German bureaucracy is implictly asking you why are you not married and explicitly asking you to identify as a husband until you get married and then you get to move to position B, regardless of the fact that you might be the person who has the higher income that is interesting to the tax office. Congrats, Germany just made you a husband!

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Hustysk Helen svarar: Do German cell phones have area codes?

Last week, an anonymous non-German was confused by the German area codes so I got this question:

“When I call a German cell phone, do I have to dial an area codes as well?!”

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As far as I know, cell phones always have their ‘own’ codes that are independent of the area the phone is in. After all, it is a mobile phone so it would be rather inconvenient if I had to change my first four digits every time I travelled from Hamburg to DĂĽsseldorf. So the answer your personal German gives you is simple: No.

The more interesting part is the underlying meaning of the different cell phone codes: a few years ago, you could very easily tell if someone had a prepaid phone card (i.e. was too young and had parents too uncool to sign a phone contract) or a contract. Numbers starting with 017 were the prestigious contract numbers, usually belonging to well-respected companies such as Telekom or  O2. The numbers with 015 in the beginning were not as distinguished and I still am not 100 procent reconciled with having a 015 number now. Oh well, I guess I am old enough to derive prestige from different things than my cell phone code. 

And yes, landline numbers do have area codes. You must dial them if you want to get anywhere outside the town you are in. A German can usually guess the approximate location of a caller by their area code. The North is 04, the South calls with 06 and 07, 08 means Bavaria and the area around Berlin is 03. So next time you see a 02 area code, pick up, it might be me!

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zip codes

zip codes

Sadly, the area codes and the zip codes do not correspond, often confusing me.

Hustysk Helen svarar: Can I say you to you?

German is a confusing language for many. There are three articles that follow little logic (for example, the moon, female in many languages, is male in German while the sun, often lingustically male, is a she in German). Then there is lots of complicated cases and terrible tenses. But most troubling for foreigners might be questions of courtesy. At least that is what I understood when I was recently asked:

“Can I say “du” to my roomate?”

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German knows basically two ways of addressing people: the informal du (“you”)  accompanied by the first name, and “Sie”, the formal designation that usually is followed by a “Ms/Mr” (occasionally also with a first name which is then referred to as “Hamburger Sie”). So far, so difficult. But who do you address with Sie (“siezen”) and who can you call du (“duzen”)?

Some German learners prefer to siezen everyone because that way you don’t have to adjust the verb but can use the infintive all the time. However, siezen and duzen has so many social implications that it is important to choose the right form – even if it is a conjugational hassle.

In school

The general rule in Germany is: you say Sie to everyone that is – or looks – older than, say, 16.  Except if you are the same age group. A 19-year-old who says Sie to an 18-year-old appears rather ridiculous. In high school, from the age of 16 onwards, teachers call you by your first name and Sie. (Students always call teachers Ms and Sie. Actually, I even spoke to my kindergarten teacher as Frau Zimmer and Sie.) At university, professors refer to their students on a last-name-basis with a Sie. The Du has then become the address for the underage and you have acquired Sie privileges. Consequently, children are always to be addressed with du.

At work

In professional environments, you should always – always – start by saying Sie to people. Changing to the du is possible, and common in some fields, but the du must be offered by the person that stands above you in hierachy and age. An intern meeting me can only say du to me if I introduce myself with my first name only. At the same time, I must say Sie to my boss or client until they suggest the du. There are tricky cases, like when the boss is younger than you. But maybe then the Sie-Du-question is not your biggest problem. Also, at company parties it might happen that you, tipsy thanks to free drinks, end up saying du to your similarily intoxicated co-workers. But beware – this might be nullified the next day, and you’re back to Sie.

Among friends

If you meet new friends, you can pretty much be sure that it is okay to say du to them. At parties and similar social gatherings, age and hierachy is less important. In your choir, it is perfectly acceptable to say du to your fellow singer even if he is 20 years older than you. 

Friends’ parents (also in-laws)

The friend-rule does not apply when it comes to your friends’ parents. Yes, there are many parents who are fine with you calling them Helga and Horst and saying du. This is, however, not something you should assume. If you start of with Herr Schnarrenberger and Frau Schnarrenberger, you are on the safe side, showing respect and good manners. If you marry a German, your in-laws will sooner or later ask you to say du to them. But give them the chance to do so, thus exhibting your detailed knowledge of linguistic subtleties.

The German practices of Sie and du sound complicated. But really,they are practical indicators of both status and intimacy. Being offered the du means something. Honoring someone by saying Sie expresses your apprecation. If you need to distance yourself for some reason (Ingrid’s example: “getting molested on public transport”), you can respond to someone who says du to you by siez-ing back, thus creating a clear “we’re-not-friends”- demarcation for them and others around you. The German language is beautifully versatile if you get the hang of it.

Oh, and to answer the question: your roommate falls under the “among friends” rule. Yes, you say du to her. If you don’t want to provoke a laughing fit.

Hustysk Helen svarar: Can I pee on the street?

Some weeks ago, I got a rather original text message. A call of help to the Personal German.

 “I really need to go to the toilet, but I am not near home or any restaurant. Is it okay to pee on the street in Germany?”

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Well, emergencies can happen, right? Germans have an own word for this because the German language has a word for everything. Wildpinkeln, wild peeing, is how Germans describe urinating on the street and to be upfront with it: no, it is not okay.

Actually, it is illegal as an act of “indecent behavior”, a scandalisation that is fined with an average of 35 euros.

Depending on the city, you might even pay much more. Luckily, the orderly Germans have put together “Fine Atlas for Wild Peeing” (fine as in monetary fine not as in fine Dining). This map gives you a clear overview of where wild peeing is most expensive. I highly recommend peeing on a Berlin street if you now must do it at all. It is only 20 euros there which does explain a lot. In Hanover and Stuttgart, two cities that do indeed look very clean (but unlike Stockholm in a boring way), wild peeing might cost you 5000 euro. You can finance a lot of dry cleaning your peed pants for that.

Photo: derwesten.de

Hustyk Helen svarar: Is there a German employment office?

One of my Swedish protégés is looking for a job. (Do you have a job in Hamburg that requires only little German?) So she asked me:

Is there an equivalent to  arbetsförmedlingen in Germany?

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I know Germany astonishes you all with its amazing economic power but I need to break the news to you: there are unemployed people here, too. Compared to other countries, the numbers are certainly low, but there are arbetsförmedlingar, i.e. employment offices everywhere. There are better places to hang out. Employment offices are called Arbeitsamt or actually they changed their name to Agentur für Arbeit because that sounds fancier, I guess. The Agentur für Arbeit is the biggest German government authority with 108.536 employees.

I was going to give this brilliant example of how to find out these things and now in this particular case the trick does not work. We call that VorfĂĽhreffekt in German, it means that something shows the exact opposite characteristics when being shown to someone. Like a trick that always works except for the one time you want to show it to people.

Whatever, I will still tell you. When I worked at the Chamber of Commerce, I learned that if you only know that there is a Erntedank day in Germany, but you wonder what that would be in English and if they have this tradition and if that is Thanksgiving – ask Wikipedia. Type in Erntedank and then change the language to English. Ta-da: you learn that it is harvest festival. (Not to be confused with Thanksgiving!). This can be practiced with all kinds of things: “lodjur”, “Dinner for One” or “nautical chart”. Try it, it works! (Just not with Arbeitsagentur.)

Hustysk Helen svarar: German Fashion Sense

helen hustyskI got this question recently:

“When I am outside walking the in city, I suddenly see Germans dressed in all beige, in beige vests and beige pants as if they were going on safari! This is the city! Why are they wearing camouflage clothes?!”

From this query I sense the deeper question essentially is: why do Germans dress so badly? To begin with, let me give you a list just off the top of my head:

Karl Lagerfeld, Wolfgang Joop, Jil Sander, Claudia Schiffer, Heidi Klum.

It is certainly not that Germany is devoid of fashion sense. At Hamburg-Baumwall, you regularly have people exiting the metro who are amazingly stylish. Nevertheless, it is true that in comparison to Spain or Sweden, Germans are far from excelling in appearance. There are some weird persistent trends (hairstyles for the 40+ lady with red highlights, glasses with curlicues and, of course, paw-chic in the form of Jack Wolfskin).

It is not always this bad. I swear.

It is not always this bad. I swear.

I believe the reason for the lack of fashion effort in Germany is that it is the land of poets and thinkers. And practical people. German children are not brought up to care about appearance to the same extent as other nations, in fact if you are too well groomed, this might easily be negatively attributed to your intelligence (women) or sexual orientation (men).

The German likes to be a down to earth practical person who does know that comfortable sandals look terrible but also knows that they are convenient and it is sensible to wear them. The German also likes to be a thinker, a person who cherishes the inside life, who roams in intellectual spheres where your make up does not matter. Poets, thinkers and pragmatics only give limited importance to looks. It is simply not considered a cultural value in the same way as it is in other countries.

You can extend this to the German outlook on sports (in Sweden people look at you as if you said you do not wash your hair when you say you don’t exercise; in Germany, they do not necessarily expect you to [work out. They do expect regular hair hygiene]). On the other hand, I have the feeling that German culture is a little less tolerant towards poor educational backgrounds and lacking general knowledge.

Do you think I am saying Germans are smart and that is why they don’t dress well? I am not sure. I heard “Dressing well is a form of good manners”. It is yet another field in which Germany and Scandinavia can learn from each other, both ways.

Oh and about the beige brigade – it is a topic that is actually widely discussed in media. There are even films about it (http://www.arte.tv/guide/de/050808-000/beige). Some argue that old people wear beige to reject attention and fit in (“Rentnerbeige-Theorie”). Not acting in professional life anymore, they retire from the spotlights and seek calmness in the discreet color. . I also read that beige makes senior citizens feel alive because it is the color of skin. (Hm, right…) The beige pensioners’ army gives a feeling of belonging and security. Other believe that – practical German alert – beige is simply a color that can be combined with a lot. I don’t know…I’ll have to ask my grandpa.

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