The usage of “Du” and “Sie” in German Posted by Sandra Rösner on May 20, 2011 in Culture
Learners of Germany would come soon across the fact that there are two different forms for addressing people, “du” and “sie”, which both mean “you” in English. “Du” is informal speech and “sie” is formal speech.
What I have witnessed is that the formal option is fading more and more to the background. I belong to the generation 25 plus and some decades ago, it was normal that people of my age were addressing each other with “sie” in random encounters. Obviously it was just a culturally and socially accepted rule to address people you don’t know very well with “sie” to merely show your respect toward the other person.
But this has changed since then to a quite conspicuous degree. Let’s say, I would go to meet a friend of mine in a public place and there we would run into some friends of my friend, who I don’t know, and we all decide to spend some time together. I would not hesitate to ask if they would mind that I say “du” to them. I would do so because I would feel uncomfortable to address them with “sie” rather than being conscious of being ‘polite’.
I even expect younger people to address me sometimes with “du” instead of “sie”. For example, one of my friends is a social worker and she once was throwing a party to where she also invited the kids from her workplace. The youths were around 16 years of age and one girl addressed me with “sie” and that offended me because it made me feel old, although she just intended to be polite and show her respect toward me. The problem of this particular example is in the setting. I think I wouldn’t have been ‘huffy’ when she had addressed me with “sie” in a more official or anonymously situation, but this was a private party.
Nevertheless, there are, of course, situations where I prefer to address people with “sie” instead of with “du”. For example, I wouldn’t dare to say “du” to the parents of my friends, to shop assistants, consultants, public officials and the like. And so would most Germans do. Maybe, one can say that the distinctive meaning of “du” and “sie” is becoming more powerful, in contrast to the past, and that it won’t be ‘only’ a symbol of respect and politeness anymore. Probably, it is becoming a sign of sympathy, that is, it could become a tool by which you can determine how close a person may get to you.
I guess, that might be very confusing for learners of German and I cannot talk for all Germans, so this is my personal point of view. And I even can’t give you any reasons why this is so. Maybe it is because life is becoming faster and more hectic and anonymously, so that people are trying to make more ‘friendly and warm’ bonds with each other. What do you think what the reason could be?
Last but not least, I can only tip you off that you may ask you interlocutor, in rather private situations, if you can say “du” to him or her, but only if YOU like and feel comfortable with it.
I hope that I didn’t confuse you so much. 🙂
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Thanks for this article, it was really helpful. I think that those who speak spanish have some advantage here because in spanish we also have two ways of saying “you”, one formal and one informal, and we use them in a similar way.
OK, but what is the question generally asked to get the permission to treat someone as ‘du’, instead of ‘sie’ ?
This is actually much easier than the Spanish speaking world where the same du/sie arrangement exists. For instance in Costa Rica, the polite form is used between parents and their children, the familiar form being reserved for husband-wife, and for prayer to God. Mexico is much less formal. Danke für die Information!
Thank you very much. I am a beginning German student and it makes perfect sense. What you may not realize is how easy it is for beginners to get lost in the vocabulary and grammar and lose touch with the important cultural aspects of a new language. You have put a human face on what is often just a rule I have to learn.
@Bob Thank you Bob. 🙂
I also would like to see how you would ask someone whether it is OK to use “du”. I think German even has made a verb out of “du” for that purpose, no? Thanks.
@Clint Swift The German verbs are “duzen” (for “du”) and “siezen” (for “sie”).
There are three different ways to ask if you can say “Du” to someone. Here they are:
Darf ich Sie duzen? – May I call you “du”?
Darf ich “Du” zu Ihnen sagen? – May I say “Du” to you?
Darf ich “Du” sagen? – May I say “Du”?
I have visited Germany several times, and up to 6 weeks at a time. Initially I was shocked how children say Du to their Parents. As I was growing up in the States we always had to say Sie or Ihr to anyone older than us. Thanks