Frankly … social
How people introduce themselves in Germany

People in Germany tend to give their first name when introducing themselves – and then immediately say what they do for a living. This is far from straightforward for our columnist Maximilian Buddenbohm.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

When Germans are introduced to somebody, they first say their surname, though increasingly these days they give only their first name, as German society is gradually switching to a more widespread use of the informal “du” form. If not already clear from the context, they will soon explain also what they do for a living. That is standard practice.

If the subject of their profession does not come up, perhaps because they are at a private party and nobody wants to talk about their work just then, the first thing all the others will ask once the person is no longer within earshot is: “He seemed nice, but what does he do for a living?” What one does is a vital piece of information, as it is impossible otherwise to gain a full picture of someone – people are nothing without a profession. A pupil or student can also be considered a worthy occupation, so even a child aged just five or six can already “be something”.

“I am rather introverted”

During introductions nobody ever discloses any other information, as this would only serve to confuse: “My name is Maximilian and I am rather introverted” is not something anyone wants to know.  It is not necessary to explain that one has children or that one’s star sign is Leo, that one is an atheist or interested in ecological issues – all of that is irrelevant. All anyone wants to hear is what the other person does: “I’m a plumber.”

Actually I’m not a plumber, that’s just a random example that occurred to me spontaneously because plumbers are often talked about in the media at the moment as there is a shortage of them in Germany. So if I were a plumber, people introduced to me would say: “Oh, that’s great! They are in such short supply!“ Then they would immediately have a clear idea of my job and therefore of me, and would congratulate me on having such a secure profession. That would be so nice and simple. 

Numbers in the morning, letters in the afternoon

But it is not at all nice and simple. When I introduce myself, nobody says “Oh, that’s great!” The problem is that I work mornings as an employee in a company’s management control department, and afternoons as a freelance author. Numbers in the morning and letters in the afternoon, I am always quick to add so that people don’t stand simply gawping at me in confusion. There is no single category I can be assigned to, that’s the difficulty. Which of the two jobs characterizes me more?

My colleagues in the controlling department tend to think I’m a bit odd because I voluntarily work only part-time and then spend the rest of my day engaged in some dubious creative activity. My writing colleagues tend to think I’m a bit odd because I work voluntarily in a financial department – that’s just not the done thing in the creative community.

You shall have only one job!

My colleagues at the company often think I pretty much have the afternoons off because all I do is sit around thinking my thoughts and writing the occasional line or two – which does not sound at all like proper work to them. Meanwhile, my writing colleagues often think my mornings must be quite relaxing because I am an employee with a secure position and therefore don’t have to spend my time chasing new work and also do not have to come up with some ingenious new ideas just before a deadline.  
As a matter of fact I do work rather a lot; frustratingly, however, because of my two different jobs I am the only person who ever notices. I often have the impression that people I am talking to are wondering all the time who in fact I really am, no matter how often I explain that, apart from the fact that I have several professions, I am otherwise a reasonably normal person – as far as I know, at least. Nobody finds it easy to deal with me. Incidentally, the same is true when it comes to filling out forms in Germany, where the word “profession” always appears only in the singular. You shall have only one job! This may not be a quote from the Bible, nor enshrined in the legal code, yet it might as well be in both given the extent to which it is seen as a universal truth.
My name is Maximilian Buddenbohm and I work as a columnist here. Let’s just leave it at that.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Qin Liwen, Dominic Otiang’a and Gerasimos Bekas. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.