Everyone knows that missionary work in Europe is a massive failure. The church has need of substantial PR boost and an entirely new strategy for appealing to contemporary Europeans and their immigrant populations. I suspect that there are a number of problems that need to be addressed, not least among them is that the traditional method of proselytizing in Europe is seen as outmoded at best and an offensive version of American imperialism at worst. However, all of these problems are compounded by a long-standing policy for European missionaries to only use the “formal” form of “you” in all conversations, regardless of whether it is culturally or grammatically correct to do so.
European languages make a distinction between a formal and informal “you”. The formal “you” is typically used as a sign of respect when speaking to people of authority, advanced age, or strangers. However, it is not generally used to refer to people with whom you have acquaintance, friends, or your age peers. Missionaries in Europe, however, are required to use the formal form when speaking to anyone. This is particularly humiliating to refer to your companion this way in public, children, or other people close to your same age.
As I understand it, this rule is set forth by the Area Authorities based in Germany, many of whom do not actually speak these languages. Interestingly, this policy does not exist, or at least is not enforced, in other geographical locations (even where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken) where a formal “you” exists. Though many theories abound about why European missions are required to use this form, one popular theory in my mission was that the formal form was more commonly used in German, and was presumed to be universal among other European languages by German speakers. The real reasons, however, are probably unknown, even to those who currently enforce them.
This rule is particularly problematic at this time in Europe because it makes it nearly impossible to form relationships with one of the most important demographics for missionary work: college students. Missionaries are hamstrung in talking to these people because it just became too awkward to explain why we were speaking to them so strangely. It intended to put distance between missionaries and their peers, but this distance has become one of the primary problems with the image of Mormons in Europe. Not only do we have to contend with the fact that we are religious, American, presumably strange, possibly polygamous, possibly black-hatted beardies, but we also talk funny. I know that missionaries in my mission just avoided our age peers because it was just too embarrassing. There is no doubt that this is one factor that contributes to the failure of European missions.