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You can Du me; the formal or informal guide

Many European languages make linguistic distinctions based on interpersonal relationships. For example, a language can have two forms of the word “you”, and a speaker would use one or the other version depending on how well they know someone. In German this is the case with “Sie” and “Du” (“Sie” being formal and “Du” being informal).

This split leads to a chronic question for many native-English-speaking expats learning (or who have just learned) German: which form should one use, and when?  This, unfortunate confusion happens because these distinctions once existed in older forms of English, but they’ve since lost their place in modern English.

We 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…

It’s hard when you are thrown into a new (and sometimes strange) culture. You are not just constantly out of your comfort zone but it seems that 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 undermine our abilities of acclimation, but honestly let me tell you first things first, that’s nonsense. Get out of your head!

We, as expats can start to think and feel that we are alone when we make tiny mistakes like this.

Plot twist: we aren’t!

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 guessing “Der”, “Die”, or “Das” for us–wing it until you’re told otherwise). Just think on the bright side, try your best and you will always succeed, or find the right answer. Germans are definitely 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 that will help you decide what to Sie and Du. (Or, rather, when to “Sie” or “Du”.)

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

  2. If both people are in an informal environment (chit-chat in line 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 won’t exactly be the case. Usage of “Sie” or “Du” can be based on comfort levels or personal preference and how well you know a person. Just don’t fret, people won’t be offended when it is obvious you are not a native speaker. I myself have been here over half a decade and still fail once in a while.

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 you’ve got, don’t 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.

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  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. 🙂

    Regards,
    Serkan

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    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 😉

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

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  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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