You can Du me; the formal or informal guide

Most European language have a linguistic distinction based on interpersonal relationships. In German this is the case of Sie/Du ( formal and informal). This is the chronic question for many expats learning or having already learned German. As, unfortunately these distinctions have lost their place in modern English.

Us expats learning the German language and culture are frequently struggling with this question, Sie vs Du…so much envy for those lucky suckers learning English… Its hard when you are thrown into a new ( and sometimes strange) new culture. You are not just constantly out of your comfort zone but it seems any faux pas, slight or not, somehow becomes this huge mistake in your head. Sometimes improperly using sie/du can lead us into a downward spiral of self doubt and we undermind our abilities of acclimation, but honestly let me tell you first things first, thats nonesense. Get out of your head!

We, as expats, start to think and feel we are alone. Plot twist, we arent. Most Germans make grammatical mistakes just like we do. In my experience it seems they just go by personal rules that work out unless corrected ( sort of like geussing Der, Die, or Das for us-wing it until your told otherwise). Just think on the bright side, try your best and you will always suceed, or find the right answer. Germans are definitly not shy when a correction needs to be made

but for those not so convinced..here is a little cheat sheet of suggestions i’ve found

  1. If both people are dressed casual, go informal.

  2. If both people are in an informal environment (chit chat in at the supermarket, or in the park) go informal.

  3. If one person is wearing a uniform in the place of employment (restaurant, café, shop, etc..) go formal.

  4. If there is more than 20 years difference between the people, go formal.

  5. In a work setting if both people are under 40 and wearing casual clothes go informal, otherwise go formal in the work environment.


Really though, these are just loose guidelines. Often they wont always be the case. It can be based on comfort levels or personal preference and naturally how well you know a person. Just don’t fret, people wont be offended when it is obvious you are not a native speaker. I myself have been here three years and still fail most of the time.

The German language itself is extremely difficult and takes a lot of work to master. Most of the time trial by error when speaking. Just think of that great American motto of ours,  “Fake it till you make it”. I live by this when speaking German. The biggest road block you will find is lacking the confidence and getting trapped in your head. As long  as you go out and give it all youve got, dont sweat the little things and even ask to be corrected. In no time you’ll be Deutsch Sprechen wie ein Profi.

7 thoughts on “You can Du me; the formal or informal guide

  1. The title ist sehr klug.
    Since most of my interaction with native German speakers is online via writing, I always assume the formal. As there’re no visual or inflective cues, it never hurts to be polite and err on the side of formality.


  2. Hi Aspen,
    when I meet a new boss, landlord etc. I always use the formal “Sie” until they offer me the informal form.
    When doing official business at the Rathaus(town Hall?)
    the DMV or something similar, always use “Sie”.
    The point about the age difference is correct but not always.At my workplace I have people in my team who are a lot older than me.I never had to use the ” Sie”, it was straight to “Du”.
    And I do correct non-native speakers, but ask them if its ok. Usually they are happy about it. 🙂



    1. Thanks for the feedback Serkan, you make a good point. I suppose I’m a bit more hesitant as we don’t have too big a comparison in English to the sie/du. Sometimes I feel silly but I’d rather be more polite than not. but often I just ask someone first instead, it never hurts 😉


      1. When in doubt, always use the “Sie”.You can’t go wrong with that.Except, don’t use it with children.
        Or pets. 😀


  3. One aspect I’d add is that Duzen conveys a friendly relationship between the two parties to others, i. e. if there is a disagreement/fight/mugging/etc. and the opponents address each other with “Du”, fewer people will intervene or they’ll do that later than usual because they assume that it is just a quarrel between friends. So if a random stranger approaches one using “Du”, it doesn’t hurt to reply with “Sie” (obviously depending on the situation and environment; for example a waiter may be a random stranger, but it is unlikely that he will grab one’s iPhone and make a run for it).


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