Annals of cultural confusion

2008/05/23 at 10:02

I’ve studied the German language and Germanic culture for years, but sometimes the intricacies of cultural understanding still allude me.
Last week, I visited my company’s R&D office in Linz, Austria, for the first time. Please note that, as far as I know, I’m pretty much the only U.S. employee in the company who speaks fluent German–except the couple of Germans who work in the US offices, of course.
When speaking German, I assumed that all of my fellow software engineering colleagues would address me with the informal ‘Du.’ That was true with one exception.

The one woman engineer in the office who also happens to be a junior QA engineer (my discipline) addressed me with the formal ‘Sie’.
I pondered this and decided that this anomaly was due to one or both of the following factors: 1.) somehow it was related to her being the only woman in a profession that is still very much more male-dominated in Austria than it is in the US, and/or 2.) it had to with our relative professional positions: she is a junior QA engineer; I’m a senior QA engineer, and I was visiting Linz in my capacity as a QA leader.
I could well have changed the level of discourse by inviting her to use the informal form, but since I wasn’t 100% of the reasons for her usage of ‘Sie’, I didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
I explained this whole situation with two other US employees who were also visiting Linz. Shortly after that discussion, we all attended a release party with our Linz coworkers. I sat with these two Americans and one Linz colleague who is Swiss, has lived all over the world, and speaks very good English.
After a couple of beers, I decided to ask this colleague about this Du/Sie situation. After explaining the whole story (but not my theories), he immediately said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Well, it’s due to your age” (i.e., I’m much older than my female Austrian colleague).
We all burst into laughter because it never even occurred to me that age would be a factor. I see myself as roughly in the same age range (20-40s) as most of my coworkers, but clearly, that’s not the case with everyone.