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“You can say you to me” is a popular German joke which you won’t understand unless you speak German. Jokes about du and Sie are widespread beacuse the du or Sie question can put you (and native German speakers, too) into a lot of awkward situations.
But the basics are easy, so let‘s talk about them first: Germans have several translations for the English you: du (for one person) and ihr (for several persons), in addition to Sie for one (or several) persons in formal situations.
You can use du and ihr only when you are talking to
- family members
- … and in a few other situations (I’ll talk about these later).
In all other situations, especially when you are talking to strangers, you will have to use Sie. Using du would appear rude, so for example you cannot just walk into a shop and say du to the shop assistant – she would think you have no respect for her.
Picture credits: business people © Maryland GovPics https://www.flickr.com/photos/mdgovpics/8435596116/, CC BY 2.0 / young people © TheeErin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/theeerin/3919615293/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0
Du and Sie – the grammar
The Sie is the same Sie as with sie singen (3rd person plural, to be grammatically exact), just written with a capital letter (which no one will hear when you are speaking – obviously). You will also use the same verb endings as with sie singen (they sing).
If you speak a language like French or Russian (actually, most languages except English) you will be familiar with this concept. The big difference to those languages is that we do not use the 2nd person plural, but the 3rd person plural in German.
See the difference:
Beate, du brauchst etwas zu essen.
Beate und Christian, ihr braucht etwas zu essen.
Herr Meier, Sie brauchen etwas zu essen.
Frau Müller und Herr Maier, Sie brauchen etwas zu essen.
If you read these sentences carefully, you realize something more: we use the du form with first names and the Sie form with Mr/Ms (Herr/Frau) + last names.
Seen from another perspective: when someone introduces themselves with their last name, you will use the Sie form. When they introduce themselves with their first name, you can use the du form.
Pretty weird, pretty complicated, and even Germans (me included) have trouble choosing the right form from time to time.
Du or Sie: the general rule
If in doubt, use the Sie form. The same applies to a group of persons where you would use Sie if you met one person from the group alone – don’t use
ihr, use Sie.
Beate und Christian, ihr braucht etwas zu essen.
Herr Maier, Frau Müller und Beate, Sie brauchen etwas zu essen.
Du or Sie: the not-so-general rule (a.k.a. the devil in the details)
My father told me that when he was a university student (in the 1950s) the students would use Sie among each others. For modern German students this sounds pretty ridiculous. Germany has obviously become much less formal.
But is Sie going to disappear, like in the Scandinavian countries?
I doubt it. A few years ago I talked to a manager in an East German company. He explained that du was often used between boss and worker in East German (communist) companies, to express an idea that went something like “we are all a big family” – which the workers, however, found pretty phony (actually, it was phony). So when bosses started to say Sie after 1990, many East German employees regarded this as an expression of respect. On the contrary, in West Germany the du form is traditionally looked upon as easy going, youthful, modern, dynamic …
In corporate German – and also in advertising – picking one of the forms can be a strategic choice. Do you want to be looked at as a young, dynamic, small company (→ du) or do you prefer your customers to see you as a reputable, elegant, distinguished company (→ Sie)? Don’t mix things up: you don’t dress up in suit and tie to meet a customer and then use du – it just doesn’t match. In their advertising, Ikea says du, yet Mercedes Benz says Sie.
Du in farming and fitness
It’s not just people who know each other who use du.
- In many rural areas almost everybody seems to use du, which does not necessarily mean they are (good) friends.
- People in sports clubs, music clubs, or other unions often say du to all club members, without really knowing all of them.
So choosing between du and Sie is not just a question of age, it is also a question of social context. But again: if you are in doubt, stick to Sie. However, when someone says du to you, feel free to use du as well.
Going from Sie to du – or vice-versa
Let’s start with the vice-versa (because it’s easier): once you say du to someone, you do not change back to Sie (and if you meet Germans telling you something else, you will know they are ill-mannered). Yes, there are these awkward situations when your boss tells you on Friday evening after his third beer that you should all use the du form, but on Monday morning he thinks this was a bad idea and changes back to Sie. If you are the employee, you will have to bite the bullet and use Sie again. But if you are the boss, do me a favor and stick to what you have said on Friday (i.e. du).
A few people will change back to Sie in a conflict, showing that they want to get some distance to the other person. How childish!
The only exception: your German colleague’s daughter, who you last met in 1998 when she was five years old, and who you now meet again. Back then you would say du to her, and she would say Sie (since she was a child and you a grown-up). But now you are both grown-up. Addressing a grown-up with du and letting them address you with Sie is impolite as well, so don’t do it. Either you choose to switch to Sie, or – the better option, in my view – you offer her to switch to du.
Which brings us to the second “direction” – going from Sie to du.
Firstly: you cannot switch from Sie to du without saying anything – that’s rude. So when you feel for it, you have to invite the other person to use du.
Traditionally there have been pretty strict rules about who can offer the du to whom (yes, we say das Du anbieten):
- Older persons offer it to younger persons.
- Bosses offer it to their employees.
That means: if you are a 60 year old lady at a relatively high position in your company, people will always expect you to take initiative (or they will just keep on saying Sie). On the other hand, if you are a 20 year old university student, you will not offer the du to anyone.
Admittely, there are situations when it’s just not feasable to stick to these rules since they are inconsistent with one another.
Example: you are a 30 year old manager of a team of five at your company. Traditionally everyone in the company uses du among colleagues. Now you are joined by a new colleague who is 60 years old. You will be her boss as well – should you wait until she offers you the du? I don’t think so. My suggestion is to be a bit diplomatic. For instance:
Wir sagen alle du im Team – ist es in Ordnung für Sie, wenn wir das auch so machen?
I’m invited to use du. Should I accept or refuse?
When someone offers the du to you, you do not refuse it unless
- you want to be super rude or
- using du would be completely unacceptable, e.g. violating company rules (say, you are the HR director, saying Sie to everyone, and now at the company party at 2am, after three bottles of wine, your 19 year old intern wants to say du to you: answer something like Danke, aber es ist besser, wenn wir beim Sie bleiben.).
I have to say: there are some etiquette guides that find it generally acceptable to refuse a du offer when you feel that the du is too intimate – not just in the exception I have just mentioned. This dates back to the times when an invitation to use du was about as intimate as an invitation to sleep together. But hey, this is the 21st century. Changing from Sie to du is as common as drinking a cup of coffee together.
Other weird things some Germans do (and you shouldn’t)
A few Germans, especially bosses, still think they will loose authority (or even respect) if they use du.
(As an English speaker this will probably make you frown, and you are completely right.)
At the same time they want to appear youthful / dynamic / personal … so they cannot decide whether to use Sie or du and choose a combination of Sie and first names (so-called “Hamburger Sie”). I recently heard this even on television, during Tagesthemen (a major German news show):
Simone, erklären Sie uns bitte die Situation in Syrien.
That’s so 19th century! In my view, it’s almost as ridiculous as shifting back from du to Sie (I talked about this one before).
I’m not from Hamburg, so maybe people there have another opinion on the Hamburger Sie. But for me, the Hamburger Sie is for waverers. My grandmother would say: “Wer A sagt, muss auch rschloch sagen.” (“If you say A, you also have to say sshole.”). Either you say Sie, or you offer to use du. Nothing in between, please.
Herr Maier, kommst du mal?
Obviously more common in the South of Germany than in the North; thus the name. Goes without saying – just as ridiculous (or even more) as the Hamburger Sie.
Mixing up du and Sie
Look at the following job ad from a startup from Berlin:
They want to appear as a cool company managed by young people, but then they call their HR guy “Herr …” – that doesn’t work! If you want to be cool, then please introduce yourself with first names.
A few cases
Now for a few tricky ones. There is no real “solution”, but I’ll give you my opinion. First try to solve the situations yourself:
- You are meeting your boss at the local chess club. Everybody there says du to each other, but up to now you have only met your boss at work, where you used Sie.
- Your basketball teammate (you are using du) walks into your company one beautiful Tuesday morning. Turns out he will be giving a presentation to you and your colleagues on behalf of your most important supplier. Of course you did not even know that he works for this supplier (actually, you hardly know him at all).
- You have offered to say du to a younger colleague, but she refused.
My suggested solutions (no guarantee this will make you friends):
- Stick to the Sie. The unwritten du law of the chess club is weaker than the real boss-employee relationship. However, if I were the boss, I would solve this situation by inviting you to say du from now on (and would stick to it back at work).
- Stick to the du. But maybe mention to your colleagues that you know each other from basketball.
- As I said before, I consider this as rude behaviour in our days. But take into account that other people may have a different opinion (especially when they are from Hamburg …). Just accept it (“Natürlich, dafür habe ich Verständnis”) and carry on as if nothing had happened.
And here for a few useful phrases:
(jemanden) duzen, du duzt = say du (to someone)
(jemanden) siezen, du siezt = say Sie (to someone)
Können wir du sagen? = Can we say du? (offering someone to use du)
Natürlich. Ich bin Martin. (Do state your first name if you’re not sure the other person knows it.)
Tldr (=too long, don’t read): If in doubt, stick to Sie.