You can say ‘you’ to me

question sprechen sie deutsch? do you speak german?

When my English husband first learned German, he told me time and again of his dilemma to choose between the formal Sie and the informal du when addressing someone. To his great disappointment, I was unable to offer him a clear-cut set of rules. Let’s look at some examples and try to find out more …

In Germany, the default, I think is fair to say, is siezen while using Herr/Frau and the person’s last name. Children and youngsters should address most people older than themselves using Sie. As an adult, you use Sie with most other adults, unless you know them better or if you are among a group of people which make a point of being laid-back, such as TV producers, PR managers and almost everyone in Cologne, or comradely, such as metal workers’ unionists. It may suffice simply being in the same place as those people, for example at a hip bar, Brauhaus, trendy shop etc.

If you do your grocery shopping at a large supermarket, even in Cologne, you would normally siezen the person at the till, and he would siezen you back, unless you are a minor.

Let’s look at some examples of the most common usage of formal and informal address in British English and German. (Note that there are, of course, regional, local and even individual varieties.)

Person British English German
Boss You + first name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name) / in some cases: Du (first name)
Colleague You + first name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name) / Du (first name)
Judge in court You + My Lord / My Lady Sie (Herr/Frau Vorsitzende(r))
Shop assistant You (+ first name if known) Sie (Varies according to region and trendiness of venue!)
Waiter/waitress You (+ first name if known) Sie (Varies according to region and trendiness of venue!)
A friend’s parents whom you meet for the first time You + Mr/Mrs + last name Sie (Herr/Frau + last name)
School teacher addressing you (age 16+) You + first name Sie (to be agreed between teacher and students: either ‘first name’ or ‘Herr/Frau + last name’)

 

Dear Germans, may I please point out that the fact that English businesspeople are on first-name terms with each other does not mean that you would automatically duzen them in German.

What the German Sie and the English you have in common is that they have no grammatically correct plural form. If you wish to formally address several people in German, you have to say something along the lines of Sie alle. Speakers of the English language in some regions of the world have come up with colloquial varieties of you to mark the plural, such as y’all (regional US American), youse (Ireland, Australia), you guys (originally US American but now widely used elsewhere too).

When one is on Sie terms with a German, as a rule, the older person would normally offer to change over to the informal address at some point. This may be accompanied by some type of ritual. It used to be common to go through the motions of Bruderschafttrinken, consisting of the following steps:

  1. Linking arms with, while sitting opposite, each other and taking a sip from your own glass;
  2. Kissing (yes, smack on the lips!);
  3. ‘Introducing’ yourself formally by your first name.

These days, this custom is pretty out-dated, at least in standard situations. The normal thing would be for the person offering the changeover to say something like, ‘Wir können ruhig ‘du’ sagen,’ and then to introduce herself again, even if you know her first name already, and even if she knows you know it. She may say, ‘Ich bin (die) / Ich heiße + first name’ or simply say just her first name.

There is an intermediate step between formal and informal in German, but it is not very widely used, i.e. using Sie in combination with a person’s first name. I’m sure the Knigge has rules for this.

If in doubt, use the formal address and let the other person initiate any changeovers. If nothing else, Sie is way easier to use, as the 3rd-person plural verb is identical with the infinitive, e.g. gehen: ‘Gehen Sie schon?’

Read more on this topic here.

Next week we’ll indulge in some easy listening.

The Pommes Buddha says: One for du and one for Sie.

> Audioversion

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4 thoughts on “You can say ‘you’ to me

  1. Meg writes on Facebook:
    “Love it! I also find it confusing when addressing a mixed group of people, whom I would separately address as du and Sie (like a group of kids and their teacher at kindergarten, or kids and adults on a bus who need to make room for my pram).”

  2. True, that is indeed confusing. I would try to single out either the adult(s) or the children and address them primarily. You could also try to keep it “neutral” and say, “Dürfte ich bitte mal vorbei?”

  3. As a keen observer of Germans in their natural habitat, I love watching natives squirm around the avoidance of personal pronouns!

    I get caught off guard by natives who don’t know me well enough otherwise to get all firstnamey-dootsy with me, but have heard that I am an American and thus assume I’m cool with whatever. I also get surprised now and then by the Du in situations where I would not expect them — on the bus outside of business hours, at that groovy shoe repair shop run by the old hippie with a big white ponytail, stuff like that. I think I’m old and *spießig*-looking enough to get the Sie everytime, but apparently not yet, and not from everyone. *Keine Beschwerde!*

  4. Thanks for your diverting contribution, Cliff! That’s what I meant by saying first-name terms are not equivalent to duzen. Many Germans seem to think Americans and Brits are ‘cool’ because they assume they duzen everyone. The second part of your comment reminds me of one of those ‘You know you’re old when …’ lines, finishing with ‘… students on the tram start to siezen you.’
    I guess this clear (and yet often unclear) distinction between formal and informal is a matter of language reflecting socio-cultural reality. Apparently, in Germany, rank and hierarchy have been and still are considered important. Ich finde das doof. I’d like more shoe-shining hippies, please!

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