When is it right to address a colleague as 'Du'?

Tom Barfield
Tom Barfield - [email protected] • 29 Feb, 2016 Updated Mon 29 Feb 2016 14:02 CEST
When is it right to address a colleague as 'Du'?

Stepping gingerly through the minefield of whether to use formal "Sie" or informal "du" with your colleagues is one of the toughest things about working in Germany for foreigners. But one firm wants to do away with it altogether.


"Anyone who wants to address a board member as 'du' can do so," Hans-Otto Schrader, chairman of the Otto Group, told Wirtschafts Woche last week.

It's a big step in a society in which some people remain picky about the level of formality people use with one another.

Making the leap from "Sie" - the formal "you" - to "du" - its intimate version - has historically been a significant moment in any interpersonal relationship in Germany.

Some colleagues work together for decades without ever switching to the intimate form. Chancellor Angela Merkel sticks to the formal "Sie" with her office manager and close confidante Beate Baumann, for example.

That makes a company-wide email letting 53,000 employees know it's okay to use "du" with him quite a statement for Otto's chairman of the board.

But for Schrader, dropping the formal "Sie" – which some see as an important part of keeping a distance from colleagues, while others find it stuffy – is "a sort of verbal starting gun for our Cultural Change 4.0 project".

Of course, Schrader said, there is no obligation to use "du" for those who want to stick to an older idea of German professionalism.

The chairman also encourages employees to call him by his acronym – Hos – which he thinks sounds "fresher" than double-barrelled, traditional "Hans-Otto".

Hard to spot a trend

Linguist Dr Lutz Kuntzsch of the Society for the German Language (GfdS) told The Local that the Otto Group decision was unlikely to spark a trend.

"I've been observing this for 20 or 30 years, and there are always waves," he explained. "It happens every five or ten years that someone says 'du' is gaining the advantage."

People who try and insist on the familiar form are "hoping to create intimacy", Kuntzsch added. "I don't find it bad, but it's an exaggerated kind of trust".

"That can lead to big problems – for example, if this boss is speaking to someone to fire them then he might be more uncomfortable."

Ultimately, "German has two pronouns, an intimate and a formal form, and that's how it grew up historically. And there's a reason for that," Dr Kuntzsch said.

What you said

In a totally unscientific poll of The Local's followers on Twitter and Facebook, most people who replied said "du" was much more common in their workplace.

"I liken it to Americans using "sir", it doesn't sit well with me," Henry Barber wrote on Facebook. "I always used 'du' because I'm a dumb foreigner."

"I believe most Germans like 'du' better, so I use it too," Pierre-Nicholas Fragasso wrote.

"With soloist colleagues, [I've used 'du'] immediately, with conductors, it depends. Directors always use "Sie" with choir but "du" with soloists," professional singer Andrew Finden told The Local on Twitter.

"With the boss I've had both formal and informal scenarios," he went on, but "mostly they're happy if we speak German at all".

One hotel worker said that she used "du" with colleagues and her boss and "Sie" with most guests.

"We're all roughly the same age and it's a small venue, so I'm not surprised," she explained.

In the Berlin startup world, things seemed to be completely relaxed, with several people telling us that "du" was the norm – "even with the 50-something Bayern [Bavarian] C-level executives."

Meanwhile, German readers had their own two cents to add.

"You should use 'du' only when someone has invited you to do it with them. Sie is the polite norm," Felix Vestfall wrote.

"One-sided use of 'du' shows a lack of respect and infringes against personal rights," another said.

While it's unlikely you'll see the inside of a courtroom if you use the wrong form in the office, we at The Local suggest that it's still safer to check with your colleague before switching to 'du'.


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