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One thing about German language bothers me since ever. As far as I know you still use "Sie" even if the context is disrespectful.

For example:

"Sie sind ein Arschloch!" ("You are an asshole!")

Isn't it a little bit silly to use the formal person to, for example, offend someone? Why is it still done?

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6  
There are degrees in (dis)respectfulness. Famous example: Mit Verlaub, Herr Präsident, Sie sind ein Arschloch! – chirlu Feb 22 at 8:22
28  
The "Sie" is not only used to show respect, but also to indicate distance. Apart from that it is a language convention, and as such it is a bit hard to get rid of. – Burki Feb 22 at 8:23
7  
It is also common to write wrathful mails full of threats, and still end it in "mit freundlichen Grüßen". Common when receiving warnings from a company or agency. – vsz Feb 22 at 9:27
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@vsz if you write a mail full of threats and insults, you wouldn't end with Mit freundlichen Grüßen, ... but with Hochachtungsvoll, ... since this is the equivalent to Sie Arschloch in administration German... – Armin Feb 22 at 9:40
6  
I note that you can do the same thing in English. If you're speaking to a customer in a formal manner and wish to insult them, you can say, "If Sir thinks that then Sir is an idiot", or "If Madam would care to f*** off and never come back". The general idea is that dropping formality and dropping respect aren't the same thing, and you can do either of them without the other :-) – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 13:03
up vote 11 down vote accepted

As Burki mentioned in his comment:

The Sie is not only used to show respect, but also to indicate distance. Apart from that it is a language convention, and as such it is a bit hard to get rid of.

You can use du or Sie in disrespectful context and they can have different levels of respect.

Some examples:

The fine for an insult may differ. A German court ruled:

Der Fall war klar: „Bürschle“ war in diesem Fall eine Beleidigung. Auch das verwendete Pronomen sprach eine deutliche Sprache: „Du Bürschle“ habe der Angeklagte gesagt, und nicht „Sie Bürschle“.

The usage of du is an indication of an insult. With Sie it could be a friendly dialect expression.

But it can also be the opposite way (du Seggel between swabians is no insult, Sie Seggel to a foreigner is an insult):

So hat zum Beispiel »du Seggel« – einem Landsmann gegenüber gesagt – einen ganz anderen Stellenwert als »Sie Seggel« gegenüber einem Nichtschwaben.

Especially Arschloch can have different meanings:

… dass das inkriminierte Wort Arschloch im Schwäbischen keine Beleidigung ist. Für ihn ist es das schwäbisches Schlüsselwort schlechthin. Synonym für Leben. Mit ihm begrüßt man beste Freunde („Ja, wo kommschd Du alds Arschloch no au her!“)

Du Arschloch is no insult in swabian, it can be used as a greeting between friends. Source: http://www.theaterhaus.de/theaterhaus/index.php?id=1,3,8356 (This is a quote from a cabaret artist, so don't take it too serious, there is some exaggeration involved)

One warning: Don’t try to use this greetings. It makes a big difference how and by who it is done. There are also many regional differences.

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11  
A little disclaimer extending the original warning: do NOT use "ARSCHLOCH" as a greeting. Chances are, that german speakers won't understand you. I am half-swabian (parents...) and have swabian relatives and friends and NEVER heard "Arschloch" in a greeting manner. – BenSower Feb 22 at 9:32
1  
Agree with the first statement - The choice of "Sie" or "Du" is much more guided by the distance you have (or even want to keep) from the counterpart than by respect. – tofro Feb 22 at 10:32
    
@BenSower I know this "Arschloch"-greeting from at least the Franconian part of Bavaria. However, it's only used between close (!) friends. "Servus Orschloch!" - "Servus du Armleichder!" – OddDev Feb 22 at 14:07
    
Depending on where you are and who you talk to (and maybe the state of intoxication this guy might be in and your own physical appearance) it might be that you end up with a "Halbekrug" on your "Meckel". So it cannot generally be recommended to try this (although it might be an unforgettable learning experience) – tofro Feb 22 at 16:44
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Wozu überhaupt dieser Exkurs ins Schwäbische? – user unknown Feb 22 at 23:09

I'd go further than the accepted answer, and say that "Sie"/"Du" are nowadays almost never used to show respect, they are almost always used to only show closeness. Using "Du" with someone you barely know is usually inappropriate and thus disrespectful, but the "Du" itself is not indicating disrespect at all. I don't know of any German speaking region where Friends and Family aren't always addressed with "Du".

Additionally, using "Du" implicitly invites the other side to use "Du" as well, which is not something you intend to offer to a stranger you're calling "Arschloch".

An exception to all this is if there's a significant age difference, most often between adults and children, but sometimes also between younger adults and very old people. As an adult you address children with "Du", even if you've never met them before, while children address adults they don't know closely with "Sie". This is a leftover from ages past when there were many more situations where it was expected for one side to use "Sie" and the other side to use "Du". The court ruling cited by knut must be looked at in this context: "Bürschle" can loosely be translated as "brat". If this is used to address an adult, the intent to use this as a demeaning phrase is clarified by prefixing it with "Du".

Also the usage of "Arschloch" as greeting is pretty much the same as using any insult as greeting among very close friends in English, only slightly more common - unless you understand the nuances, only use it to respond in kind, usually with a different insult to make the exchange more amusing.

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3  
Using du or Sie “the wrong way around” can be itself constitute an insult, though; in particular, using du for a policeman is generally considered an insult by courts (with certain exceptions). – chirlu Feb 22 at 16:59
    
@chirlu I wrote: "Using "Du" with someone you barely know is usually inappropriate and thus disrespectful, but the "Du" itself is not indicating disrespect at all." - I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of german speaking people agrees that addressing a policeman with "Du" will be disrespectful in many circumstances, but is not actually even close to being an actual insult. It was an insult 150 years ago. Courts have to work with precedents and are therefore ill equipped to deal with evolving language. – Peter Feb 22 at 17:08
    
To expand on that: I did and do occasionally address police with "Du" , depending on the seriousness of the setting. It's possible that there are some German speaking parts where this is unusual, but the linked article does show how even courts are no longer seeing it as an insult. – Peter Feb 22 at 17:36

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