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I came across a conversation like this in Menschen German A1 kursbuch:

As far as I know, in German culture it is not proper to address an elderly person informally unless you are a very close friend (in order to be respectful). On the other hand, an elderly person can address a person younger than himself/herself informally. However, in the conversation above , this situation is reversed in a way that I cannot understand. I didn't get why "Nicole" can be able to use "Wie geht's?" so comfortably and in turn Frau Wachter answers back using "Ihnen" which is the formal way. If the source was not Menschen(whose publisher is Hueber) I would think that they made a very huge mistake and it is a distrustful source, but Hueber is well-trusted as far as I know.

So I wanted to ask you thinking that I am missing some points and you would help me.

Thank you so much.

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    For the record, I do not perceive the depicted situation as overly formal. Formal would be e.g. a business meeting with co-workers that I am not normally interfacing with, possibly with higher-ups, or with representatives of another company. The excerpt shown in this question, in contrast, seems rather informal to me - running into a neighbour or other not so close acquaintance during one's spare time, having a brief chat. Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 10:02
  • Isn't Wie geht's = Wie geht's (dir)?. But I do not still understand why the elder person answers back "Wie geht's?" with "Und wie geht's es Ihnen?", it sounds to me like the younger person(Nicole) is the employer of this elder person(Frau Wachter).
    – Ville
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 10:16
  • Why would it? Both address each other with "Sie", as you'd usually do unless you have agreed to address each other with "du", or you know the person since both of you were children and would keep using the "du" form since then. Conventions about this have only started changing over the past 15 or so years (in that it starts to become increasingly common for the entire staff in companies to use "du" internally), but definitely after the days when an elderly person like Mrs. Wachter would have learned what is or isn't general politeness, based on the customs of those days. Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 10:22
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    Oh, now I understand the surce of your confusion: "Wie geht's?" is simply short for "Wie geht es?". This could be both "Wie geht es dir?" or "Wie geht es euch" or "Wie geht es Ihnen?" Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 10:23

2 Answers 2

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This is, as mentioned in the comments, not a formal situation. It's just that the older lady (Frau Wachter) has not proposed the "Du" to Nicole because they are not very close. This would be very typical for example if Nicole and Frau Wachter are neighbors and interact occasionally. So no need to be overly formal in how you speak ("Wie geht's?" instead of "Wie geht es Ihnen?" is totally fine), but just keep using "Sie" instead of "Du" because that's the social standard in at least those regions in Germany I'm familiar with.

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First of all, it's not about formal vs informal but about distant vs familiar. Sure, being formal means maintaining a distance but the opposite isn't always true:

Ein Arschgesicht sind Sie!

Very informal yet distant. Actually, this is much more insulting than the familiar variant.


But you are missing that Wie geht's? doesn't feature Frau Wachter by personal pronoun at all. So it doesn't say anything about familiarity.

Wie geht's dir? — familiar

Wie geht's Ihnen? — distant

Wie geht's? — undefined

In your example, it is however determined by addressing Frau Wachter by last name. That's distant.

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  • I don't really agree with how you use formal (förmlich, formell) vs. distant (distanziert). For me, it's the other way around. You call the insult "very informal yet distant", I would call it formal, but without distance (distanzlos). Same with the last sentence. Adressing Frau Wachter cordially, but with "Sie", is formal, but not distant.
    – HalvarF
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 7:46

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