Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Big Brother of Bargains

I have been to IKEA on Saturday night one week ago because I was tipped off that they have exactly the sort of kitchen sink I am after. They usually cost a bomb, not to speak of the fuss to fit it in a modern kitchen.


Just for illustrative purposes: this is a similar one from Villeroy & Boch. I think in England it's called a farmhouse sink.

I went there, they had the sink I want and even a fitting floor unit. They even have a kitchen that would complement the style and period of the house and the kitchen is even affordable and of good quality. A different question is what will remain of the bargain once we have paid somebody for assembling the units, because I am past the age where I joyfully assembled yards and yards of BILLY bookcases. However, I put that firmly in some remote corner of my memory because I really like that kitchen. IKEA is like that.

There are so many good things, and the fact that I am reminded every second minute of my lengthy stay there why I hate that damn place, turns that perversely into something irritating. Oh, how much would I like to show them the finger and stay away for ever, but alas, I can't afford it. The ultimate humiliation!

There are so many things that make IKEA a pain in the proverbial. I don't mind so much the "Something for Everyone" approach and I remember fondly that my husband and I got there 30 years ago lots of nice things for our first household, specifically a solid big pine kitchen table, something that wasn't on the stuffy German furniture shops' map then, so IKEA's "otherness" was more of an attraction than the fact that their furniture was reasonably priced. Decades later, IKEA has safely arrived in the mainstream (or has the mainstream arrived at IKEA?) and "Something for Everyone" has been firmly replaced by "Everything for Everyone". IKEA evokes an image of one megalomaniac seller who offers no choice or difference between the up- and the downmarket, styles or lifestyles, and the resulting taste-hotchpotch is scary. IKEA is the shop for the ultimately insecure. Buy here and no one will ever accuse you of having bad taste. It's all not ugly and it's all the same and even the things some may DO consider ugly, as I do, are, so to say ideologically, beautified by labelling them "retro". I do not think that, for example, the popular Sixties/Seventies style with its geometric patterns and nondescript, characterless colour schemes (mostly white with one or two not-quite-primary colours or catsick yellow and dogturd brown) hasn't got a single redeeming quality, yet the majority of the fabrics offered are designed that way.

How this all-inclusive taste brew is concocted is no secret. The ikea.com website reveals:
At IKEA we design the price tag first and then develop the product to suit that price.
A prescription for staunch individualism if I have ever seen one.

All this is mirrored by the fact that everybody is addressed by Big Brother IKEA in the countless messages, posters and placards as "Du" and now, I think, a brief linguistic digression is in order:
English, with its one and only "you" for everyone, familiar or strange, stands alone here. All the other Indo-European languages, including German, have both, a formal "you" and a familiar "you." The familiar "thou" and its "thee," "thine," and "thy" derivations died out in English long ago. However, the German familiar address "du" is related to the archaic English "thou." This becomes more clear, if one remembers the so-called "d<-->t/th shift" between German and English, which becomes apparent in many word pairs, for example Leder/leather, Feder/feather, tief/deep, tot/dead or rot/red.

But the difference doesn't end at a grammatical rule: the cultural gap is deep and wide. Anglophones are not used to making the distinction between the familiar and formal you and the "first name" situation doesn't even begin to come close to it. Germans are very much aware of it and can become very uncomfortable when the Du/Sie rules are broken. They tend to keep their distance longer with acquaintances than the English do, for example, colleagues who have worked together for years may very well go on addressing each other as "Sie". It does not mean they are unfriendly, but they are maintaining the important German division between friends and acquaintances. Using the "Du" without being invited can be offensive, and indeed it even may be considered legally as a verbal slander in certain situations. Using the "Sie" can be even more offensive, although in a more subtle way and without any legal consequences.
I am amazed at myself just HOW much that irritates me.

As my egalitarian inclinations have always been rather underdeveloped and as I am, additionally, mildly claustrophobic, rubbing shoulders with the masses has always limited my enthusiasm for otherwise pleasurable exploits. However, I am pleased at the fact that, here, a Saturday night is not nearly as crowded as it would be in an IKEA store back home in the West, so I can at least do my figures in a quiet corner of the almost empty restaurant. (As an aside: I seem to remember that the IKEA restaurants used to offer excellent snacks. Now the grub is -- just -- edible. Whether that is a reflection on how long I haven't been to one or a manifestation of the East vs. West gap, I don't know.)

One of the good things is that the ikea.de website just offers to sell furniture and stuff and spares us the embarrassing do-gooder rhetoric ikea.com indulges:
Low prices are the cornerstone of the IKEA vision, business idea and concept. The basic thinking behind all IKEA products is that low prices make well-designed, functional home furnishings available to everyone. After all, our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people.

We are constantly trying to do everything a little better, a little simpler, more efficiently and always cost-effectively. All IKEA units play an important part in creating our low prices which we are then able to offer our customers.
As it is so amazingly often the case with do-gooder blah blah, this rhetoric, too, stands on clay feet.

As does mine. IKEA will go on beating that egalitarian old nag they are riding to death and corrupting the social and linguistic awareness of the Germans in the process, and I -- I will surely buy that kitchen because there is no satisfactory alternative.

6 Comment(s):

Moshea bat Abraham said...

A few years ago, on the fan ml for that manga I told you about, someone asked if German had two forms of "you" like French and Spanish (the questioner had studied Spanish in school). A German answered, and explained to us Anglophones, as you alluded to, that using the formal form when the intimate form is appropriate is just as grave an insult. For instance, using the formal form to a close relative would be essentially disowning them and telling them you don't want anything more to do with them.

She also said that the intimate form is being used more often these days, and that German high school teachers who knew their teenage students as children are continuing to use the intimate form. Apparently these teachers are unconcerned that 1) it is incorrect and 2) it is their job to demonstrate proper behavior.

My own language, of course, has dispensed with the intimate second person centuries ago, but as an enemy of all forms of cultural decline, I was distressed to hear that many Germans have started using the intimate form inappropriately. I would hazard a guess that other European nations are doing the same thing.

*sigh* At least the Japanese are still uptight.

The_Editrix said...

What the German told you is correct on all accounts. In the West it's the American influence, in the East (where I am living now) it's the heritage from the Great Socialist Brotherhood of Men. Language goes deeper than just transmitting a message and the loss of the formal address is disastrous for the entire culture.

I'll tell you an interesting anecdote: Years ago I met at the house of English friends (my parents' generation) friends of them, a married couple of the same age. The wife was German and spoke after forty odd years in England still with a noticeable German accent. We were all on first name terms and we all spoke English. Then there occured a situation where I and the German born woman lapsed into speaking German AND I COULDN'T BRING MYSELF TO USE THE INFORMAL "DU", although I knew her by then well (and liked her). I had the feeling that it agreed with her. Since then, I know that the English "being on first name terms" and the German "Du" have very little in common.

Moshea bat Abraham said...

Very true.

I am relieved that my language dropped the intimate "thou" centuries ago. I shudder to think what we would do with it nowadays.

Evil Style Queen said...

The mentalities are different. Remember what Churchill said: You either have the Hun at the throat ot at the feet, or words to the same effect. The loss of the formal "Sie" is of devastating proportions. The English keep their distance anyway. I always feel comfortable with them. I am not sure about the Americans because I don't know them well enough.

Moshea bat Abraham said...

Well, people claim that Americans are more casual and are intimate too easily, but I don't think that's exactly true. Our social customs involve a sort of ersatz friendliness, but it's actually just as ritualistic as the more formal forms of address and conversation from past eras, it's just designed to *look* like easy intimacy.

Not that I wouldn't rather we went back to being formal and stiff and standoffish.

Evil Style Queen said...

Exactly! People here think that Americans are more "informal" because they are not aware of American social markers and borders and just don't know when they are transgressing them. I wouldn't recognize them either, but at least I am not naive enough to think that they don't exist.

It drives me up the wall if my German compatriots are yabbering about the "bad English cooking" or that "the English" pour the milk first and then the tea. All they know is what they've seen in English working class families because those are usually the ones who are accomodating foreign students.

Instead of trying laboriously to "understand" alien cultures and to undertake the impossible task to learn how not to tread on Muslim sensitivities, we Westerners ought to begin to understand each other first.