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The etiquette of Sie and du at the workplace Posted by on Sep 25, 2014 in Culture, Language

As many German language learners know, in German there are two different ways of saying the word ‘You’. There is ‘du’, which is informal, and ‘Sie’, which is formal. This is entirely different to the English language, which only uses one word (You) for both.

I wanted to touch on this subject to discuss the use of Sie and du at the workplace.

First, let me re-cap Sie and du. Let’s say we take the sentence, “How are you?” as an example. In English, regardless of who you are speaking to, you say the same thing: “How are you?” However, depending on who you are speaking to, you can say this sentence in two different ways in German:

Wie geht es dir?


Wie geht es Ihnen?

The first, Wie geht es dir? is the ‘du’ version, and is a friendly, informal greeting that you would use with friends, family, and anyone who you know quite well and are on friendly terms with.

The second, Wie geht es Ihnen? is the ‘Sie’ version, and is a polite, formal greeting. Generally, you use this version to speak to anyone, until they (or you, depending on who is more senior) invite you to use ‘du’.

So, in other words, the formal version is the default between two people, until their relationship changes into a friendlier one. This is effective in creating a respectful distance between people that is necessary in many situations – like the workplace, for example.


Working in England with a German speaker

I live in England, so I never had to deal with the issue of Sie and du at the workplace – until an Austrian girl joined my team, and we started speaking in German to one another. I found this difficult at first. I wanted to use ‘du’ with her, because ‘Sie’ seemed so formal – after all, if she had been an English speaker I would have spoken as informally as possible, to make her feel welcome. If I were to explain this in a way that an English person could relate to, I would say this:

Each time I used ‘Sie’ with my Austrian colleague I felt like, instead of saying, “What time do you start work?” I was saying, “Could you please inform me of the time you begin your shift, madam?”

It felt unnatural. I felt I was coming across as cold, being so formal with her in German, yet so informal with her in English! Thankfully, she used ‘du’ with me one day, and so we naturally started addressing each other informally. Needless to say, I felt much more at ease once that had happened.

The reason I was so conscious of my choice of words was because I didn’t want to offend her. Unlike in England, the distinction between ‘Sie’ and ‘du’ is quite a big deal in German-speaking workplaces, and this social etiquette can be difficult to understand if you are not used to it.


German shop employees

But this distance is created in other ways, too. In many German shops, employees wear name badges with their title and surname – not their first name. In those situations, when they call to another employee, instead of saying, “Hey, Brigitte, ich brauche Kleingeld!” (“Hey, Brigitte, I need change!“), they’d say, “Hey, Frau Schmidt, ich brauche Kleingeld!” (“Hey, Mrs. Schmidt, I need change!”) This is just one way of creating a respectful distance in the workplace, as it means they’d only call someone by their first name if they were on genuinely friendly terms with them. It also makes the working environment a little more formal.

Another thing this does, I think, is create a respectful distance between employees and customers. Working in a shop myself (in England), I get taken aback when customers use my first name (which they have read on my badge). To me it sounds as if they are speaking to me like I am their friend, and that bothers me. In that respect, I find the German custom of only using title + surname much, much nicer, as you can’t act like someone’s best pal if you are addressing them as “Mrs. Smith”.

Using du with other employees

On the topic of relationships between employees, I found an excellent explanation from ZEIT Campus magazine about the importance of Sie and du in the workplace:

“Every business, company and department has its own rules when it comes to how to speak to one other, and these rules determine who can say ‘du’ to whom, and when, and why. Just because you have many young colleagues, or want to appear open and friendly, that doesn’t mean you can simply abandon the use of ‘Sie’ immediately. This can appear disrespectful, and will quickly give you a reputation of unprofessionalism. As a rule, you should continue using ‘Sie’ until a colleague invites you to use ‘du’.”


When a ‘du’ slips out!

There have been other occasions at work where I’ve obsessed over the use of Sie or du. For instance, I once accidentally addressed a German customer with ‘du’ and was mortified for quite a while afterwards, until my Austrian colleague reassured me that it wasn’t a big deal, considering the relatively informal setting we work in. Still, I thought I had made a faux-pas. Another time I was addressed with ‘du’ by a stranger, and I felt quite insulted, though I couldn’t figure out why (I can only assume it was the German half of me revealing itself). Instead of using ‘du’ back I continued with ‘Sie’, as a sort of barricade to let him know I wasn’t impressed. This was instinctive on my part, but I’m not sure if it had any impact on him.


‘Du’ as an offensive term

If you’re wondering how using ‘du’ can be offensive to people, here’s an example. I read a book recently called “Ruf! Mich! An!” by Else Buschheuer. In it, the main character Paprika talks frequently about the use of Sie and du. To Paprika, it is an insult if people use ‘du’ without her permission. In one instance, she asks herself:

„Dutzt mich der Arsch?“ („Is that arsehole addressing me using ‚du‘?“)

On another occasion, she employs the use of ‘du’ herself to insult somebody:

“ ‘Nimm das Zeug und steck’s dir in den Arsch!’ Manchmal ist Duzen auch schön.“ („ ‚Take it and shove it up your arse!’ Sometimes addressing people using ‘du’ is fun, too.“)


To conclude

Those are my little anecdotes and musings on the use of Sie and du in the workplace.

What I would advise English speakers when using Sie and du is this:

  1. Use ‘Sie’ in German in the same way you would speak politely, and respectfully, in English.
  2. If you are new at a job, always use ‘Sie’ in the workplace, until a colleague invites you to use ‘du’ with them.
  3. Never use ‘du’ with your boss unless they tell you that you can (this may never happen, and that is probably a good thing).
  4. If in any doubt: Use ‘Sie’!

If you have any further tips, or any stories relating to this topic, feel free to share them in a comment!

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About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


  1. Peter:

    Visiting friends in Germany, I once said “Kommen Sie hier” and everyone laughed because I was speaking to their dog. Lesson learned. I’d only learned to speak polite.

    • Constanze:

      @Peter Hahah, that’s adorable! I’m sure the dog appreciated it. 😉 But to be honest, when I was learning French & German at school I remember being taught that there are two ways of saying ‘you’, but I don’t remember being given an in-depth explanation as to how and when to use them. I guess a lot of people learn one or the other without being taught why they are saying it!

  2. Marcel:

    Well in Germany we say in use for “du” and “Sie” at the office specially to the boss “Du Arsch ist schneller gesagt als Sie Arsch” (You (informal) Arse is faster said then you (formal) arse.)

    • Constanze:

      @Marcel I love it! Thanks for sharing! 😀

  3. Larissa:

    I’ve learnt it that if someone introduces you with their first name it’s okay to say du… but if they said only their second name eg Herr Schmidt or full name Sven Schmidt then you should say Sie until you know each other better! My “du” and “Sie”s slip out before I can think! Usually the wrong way round haha.

  4. Peter N.:

    So interesting to me how the du/Sie distinction seemingly is still going strong in German, even in the business workplace which is so multinational. It sort of reminds me of how formal seeming American office workers addressed each other back in the ’60s (“Take a letter, Miss Moneypenney…”). I can imagine that it must be bizarre nowadays for Germans to make a business trip to places like Silicon Valley and have to get used to the incredibly informal manners of people at Apple and Google!

    One question occurs to me about German workplace customs: if you socialize with a co-worker outside of work and eventually get to saying “Du” to each other, is it awkward to carry that over to the workplace in front of other colleagues who are still addressed with “Sie”? I just wonder about how language can be so indirectly revealing of social relationships and how this might lead to professional jealousy; and how pronouns might have to be used so carefully in a meeting, for instance!

    • Constanze:

      @Peter N. This is a very good point, Peter! Although it’s still going strong, it’s not as black and white as it appears. The lines do get blurred, and obviously some people are more strict about it than others. But when it comes to work, my understanding is that (in theory, at least) that is the whole point of Sie and du. I have a German client for my translation job who I’ve been working for for over 2 years. We still only use Sie in our communication, and I doubt that’ll ever change. There’s no real need for it to, either. I like that; I like that we aren’t pretending to be friends. So in our case, the language we use creates appropriate distance between us. I find that some people get way too friendly with their bosses/superiors, and it always ends in disaster. Maybe the use of Sie and du does lead to professional jealousy in a workplace, but that exists everywhere, anyway. You are naturally closer to some people than others. It’s just more evident in German!

  5. Suzanne:

    I don’t necessarily like it that in the States anyone can call me by my first name, but it is hard to roll back without seeming to be disagreeable. Business people just presume to address me informally without even asking when I would prefer to keep a distance. And I don’t like that any kid can use my first name. I guess it is generational and soon there will be none of us left who remember a diiferent time.