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To du or not to du: How to crack one of Germany's most tricky etiquette dilemmas

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To du or not to du: How to crack one of Germany's most tricky etiquette dilemmas
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? - The polite way to say: Do you speak German? Photo: Deposit Photos/nito103
13:29 CEST+02:00
Learning the language is difficult, but understanding German etiquette, such as when to use ‘Sie’ or ‘du’, is a much harder thing to master, argues The Local’s Rachel Loxton.

I used to travel to the Brandenburg countryside once a week, where I'd take a taxi to the company I worked in.

It was always the same driver, an older man from Ludwigsfelde, and we'd always have a little bit of small talk during the 15 minute journey, using the formal 'Sie'.

But I remember feeling alarmed when I accidentally blurted out: "Wie geht es dir?" (the informal way to say: How are you? using the dative of du) after a few weeks. 

I apologized and quickly repeated the question again, the formal way: "Wie geht es Ihnen?" The driver, thankfully, didn't comment on my minor faux pas.

You can’t grasp a new language without getting words wrong and feeling embarrassed: it’s how you learn. 

But getting to grips with the etiquette of a language is a whole different ball game. In German, knowing when to use ‘du’ and when to say ‘Sie’ is a tricky business. And it’s even hard for native German speakers to decide what to use.

Are there any rules?

The problem is there are no set rules. It’s not like learning that ‘Der’ (the masculine form of ‘the’) in an accusative sentence turns into ‘Den’.

There are, however, general guidelines on when to use ‘Sie’ and ‘du’ - which both mean ‘you’ in English.

When you speak to a stranger, someone you’ve never met before, you should use the polite ‘Siezen’ form. You should also use ‘Sie’ when you speak to someone in authority or somebody older, as a sign of respect.

Meanwhile, ‘the ‘Duzen’ form can be used when you’re speaking to friends or family, or someone younger than you.

Still, that leaves a lot of things open to interpretation. 

Ekkehard König, Emeritus Professor of German and English linguistics at the Free University (FU) in Berlin, says it is a subjective decision.

“My choice depends very much on my relationship with a person,” he says. “I use Sie first of all unless it’s a younger person or a child where you would use du straight away.”

“Normally I would use Sie towards people I don’t know, I’ve never met or people I have no close social contact with.”

The grammar part 

Whichever form you use results in changes  to your whole sentence. If you use ‘Sie’ for example, your verb will take the infinitive form after.

For example: Wollen Sie eine Tute? (do you want a bag?) - something you might hear at the cash desk in a shop.

With ‘Sie’ a further thing to note is you wouldn’t use the first name when addressing someone. You’d use Herr or Frau plus the surname.

An example of a ‘du’ sentence could be: Willst du einen Kaffee? (do you want a coffee?) With ‘du’, German speakers usually use first names to address someone.

Changing from ‘Sie’ to ‘du’

What I find particularly difficult to get my head around is that these forms aren’t fixed. German people start by talking to each other using the ‘Sie’ form and then, if it’s appropriate, they will shift to using ‘du’.

But to change the way you speak to someone “you wait for the offer” of ‘du’, says König. 

Outside the workplace an older person should always be the first to suggest to a younger person that they use the informal ‘du’ instead of ‘Sie’ in a conversation. In a professional setting it’s the position that matters - not the age.

So a boss or supervisor must be the one to offer the informal ‘du’ to employees. It’s not the correct protocol to ask a person if you can "dutzen" if you’re not in the position to do so, experts warn.

“If I know someone then we have a ceremony of transition from Sie to du. If that hasn’t taken place we continue to use Sie,”says König.

It sounds simple enough, but in practice it could bring up a lot of issues. For example, I've worked in offices in Germany where some people used ‘Sie’ with the boss, and others had been permitted to use ‘du’ - likely leaving people feeling left out of an insider circle. 

König says it’s true that the two forms were previously used to segregate society.

“Originally the use was also a matter of power, - so ‘du’ for downwards, and ‘Sie’: upwards on the social scale,” he says, adding that this is luckily no longer the case.

During the time of the revolutions in 1968 across Europe, particularly involving students, the use of language changed, says König.

In universities, for example, students were encouraged to use ‘du’ instead of ‘Sie’ towards professors and lecturers.

“Since then we’ve had a rollback or return to the more traditional situation where the choice is a matter of age, respect and the social relations between the people concerned,” he says.

Companies or groups of people can use the language to create varied environments.

For example, a more formal firm might advocate the use of ‘Sie’ more (certainly for bosses), while start-up companies or international companies might have a ‘du’ policy, where everyone uses the same form, no matter their position.

“You create a particular atmosphere if everyone can opt for the choice of ‘du’ only, says König.

On the whole native German speakers use 'du' to address a child but this changes when the child becomes a young adult. 

"I would use Sie with somebody over the age of 16," says König.

"In school they have a certain age where they change over from du to Sie."

Regional differences

Here’s where it gets even more tricky. In Hamburg, it’s common for bosses or supervisors to call employees by their first name, while also using the ‘Sie’ form. This is known as the ‘Hamburger du’ and is often found in these kinds of asymmetrical relationships.

However, it would be a faux pas if the employee responded in the same way.

He or she should address their superior using ‘Sie’ and with ‘Herr’ or ‘Frau’ and their surname.

It's worth getting to grips with the regional differences for using 'Sie' and 'du'

If that wasn’t complicated enough, it’s also worth noting that in Bavaria addressing someone with only their surname is used often with ‘du’.

Then there’s the ‘Genossen-Du’ or ‘fellow-du’ used among supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to show that they are like-minded people, on the same level.

Meanwhile, in international neighbourhoods, such as Kreuzberg or Neukölln in Berlin, ‘du’ is very common in cafes and restaurants. Using ‘Sie’ to order a beer in an alternative punk bar, for example, would be considered strange, so context is everything.

Andreas Freytag Hill, who is from North Carolina but has family in southern Germany, says he uses 'du' almost exclusively in Berlin where he now lives.

The 24-year-old says: "In Berlin I mainly use du except for people in some sort of official capacity, for example at the Ausländerbehörde (immigration offices) or the Finanzamt (finance office). 

"But when I'm visiting family in the south of Germany (Baden-Württemberg), I say Sie to everyone who is older than me and not a relative or a close family friend."

'It's a dilemma for Germans, too'

König says when in doubt you should use ‘Sie’ - yet even native German speakers can find this tricky sometimes.

“It can be a dilemma for Germans,” he says. “But in English there are also choices you make, for example if you use the first name only or not.

“I would suggest for somebody learning German and coming to the German speaking culture it’s well advised to use ‘Sie’ and only use ‘du’ towards children and very young people.”

König assures me that “nobody will take much offence” if learners make a mistake with this language issue.

“It would be totally acceptable, people understand,” he says.

 

The office is a difficult place to decide whether to use Sie or du. Photo: Deposit Photos/gunner3000

We put some situations to Professor Ekkehard König and asked him to tell us if we should use Sie or du.

1. You’re on the U-bahn and you want to offer someone a seat. What do you use?

“Sie is called for here,” says König.

2. You’re at a friend's barbecue with members of their family who you don't know. What do you use?

“With your friend you’d use du and with their family you’d use Sie unless you were offered du,” says König. “Within your own family it’s no longer customary to use Sie at all.”

3. You’re starting a new job and meeting all your co-workers for the first time. What do you use?

“When you start a new job to show respect it would be Sie exclusively to begin with,” says König.

On the U-bahn use 'Sie'. Photo: DPA

4. It’s 2am on a Tuesday night, you have a noisy neighbour and you can't sleep. You knock on their door to tell them to be quiet. What do you use?

“In that particular case it’s highly important that you use the respectful form of Sie,” says König. “Using du here would add another layer of rudeness and expresses the anger overtly, which you would want to avoid. A great politeness is called for here.”

5 You are pulled over by the police for cycling without lights. What do you use?

“Certainly you would Sie,” König says. “It’s absolutely necessary to use the respectful form.”

6. You’re in a cafe in a Kiez (neighbourhood) viewed as liberal and there's a lot of young people around. What do you use?

“Maybe the younger generation would use du,” says König. “At my age and in my particular case I would use Sie.”

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