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In a language such as English, where there are no "built-in" (so to say) polite and familiar forms, what are some simple tips or guidelines for when to use the polite or the familiar forms? Are there significant differences in written text, such as letters and e-mails, and conversation?

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Many (younger) people will tell you that they prefer being addressed by "du" instead of "Sie". There are even two verbs for that: duzen means to address somebody using du and siezen is the equivalent for Sie. –  FUZxxl May 24 '11 at 21:08
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This was easier when I was younger! Now I'm in my thrities, someone of the same age might well expect a Du even in a formal setting, and take Sie as an suggestion that they are old before their time :) –  misterben May 24 '11 at 21:14
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@misterben This corresponds with my experience as well (although I’m still quite a bit younger). I also get the impression that the “threshold” for using “Du” is slowly moving upwards, possibly due to the influence of American culture. –  Konrad Rudolph May 28 '11 at 13:35
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You can also address someone with Sie that you know very well and are on a "per du" basis. In that case, it can have a sarcastic touch, implying he/she's being arrogant, or - quite the contrary - even be affectionate. –  phant0m Jun 23 '11 at 21:16
    
@pha Curious! The sarcasm I can understand, but how could it be taken affectionately?? –  Glen Wheeler Jun 24 '11 at 6:10

13 Answers 13

up vote 41 down vote accepted

In person-to-person contact the polite "Sie" is the standard way of addressing someone (in written contact even more so). Unless they are the same age as you (or younger) and you are pretty young yourself (say, under 30) - when this is the case an the setting is relaxed (at a party, in a bar, etc) you could venture to use "du" right away.

Switching to the informal "du" from an official/business setting usually requires that you know and like each other well, at some point one will offer the "du" - traditionally, the older one to the younger one. Receiving the "du" from somebody carries some weight and should not be taken too lightly. Also, if in a meeting, the "du" is usually taboo unless every participant is on a "du" basis with everybody else.

Children are addressed with "du" by default. At some point, when they come of age, there is a fuzzy zone where even young people are uncomfortable with being addressed with the now-correct "Sie", as it implies just that - they are getting old.

Exceptions from the rule are the Internet (where the informal "du" is the default form and being addressed with "Sie" is awkward, even mildly insulting when done right), and, of course a big Swedish furniture company, where the "du" is company policy.

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+1 - I would like to add though that especially here in the Cologne/Ruhrgebiet area, it is also relatively common to use "Du" among strangers on the street if they are approximately of the same age. "Du" and "Sie" has a lot of subtleties - as Tomalak says, "Sie" can be used as a mild insult under some circumstances - as can be an inapproriate "Du", often seen used by arrogant people dealing with what they perceive as their social inferiors. If in doubt though, stick with "Sie". –  Pekka 웃 May 24 '11 at 22:22
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Two things about German IKEAs -- a) the people there will say "Sie" as well, it's just the posters and ads that say "du"; the sales people are Germans after all (they will also look at you weird if you pronounce Swedish furniture names correctly), and b) while Swedish has a "Sie" (called "ni"; same word as for "ihr"), it's hardly ever used; the global default in Sweden, if you will, is "Du". –  balpha May 25 '11 at 5:57
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@balpha: I've been addressed with "du" in IKEAs. I guess it depends. It may also well be that the company policy didn't stick too well and people are just switching back to default behavior given some time. –  Tomalak May 25 '11 at 8:25
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AFAIK the IKEA's company policy is to use "Du" among the employees. It doesn't determine how to talk with customers. –  RoToRa May 25 '11 at 9:31
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+1 for: "Sie" is awkward, even mildly insulting when done right –  tedev Sep 8 '11 at 13:11

I am reporting my personal guidelines, which may repeat something already answered.

I’m English, been with a German for 3 years, been to Germany about 8 times, I’ve met my boyfriend’s family and friends etc. The people I/we tend to hang out with in Germany are in their 20s and 30s. I’ve read Keeping up with the Germans, Planet Germany, Springtime for Germany, A Year in the Scheisse and various others and, after all that, these are the guidelines I've personally come up with:

  1. If you can avoid using Sie or du, avoid it! It’s a lot easier to just skim over the issue and not deal with it.

  2. If in doubt just go with du, if someone gets offended, apologise, shrug, say you are foreign and ask how to do it correctly next time, the other person will – most likely – forgive your ignorance and appreciate that you want to learn how to do it correctly.

  3. Use Sie with white-haired people as a sign of respect.

  4. Maybe use Sie at work, but it depends where you work, they might laugh at you if you use Sie in a relaxed job.

  5. The Germans are as confused as I am regarding this matter, so it’s ok to mess it up ;-)

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add-on: Take care if you're joining certain types of guilds. Too much respect and politeness would be a good joke if you used "Sie", for example:

  • if you're a builder and start your first day at a building site
  • if you're a punk and you're joining a group of foreign punks
  • you're about 20 years and you meet other foreign twens
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As a rule of thumb in every day life, you can decide the correct form on how you would call a person in English:

  • if you call someone by their first name or an informal phrase like 'you guys', you can use 'Du' in German.
  • if you would approach someone by using 'Sir', 'Miss', or 'Mr. X' or 'Mrs. Y', you should use 'Sie' in German.
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This is a rather nice practical approach, thank you! –  Takkat Apr 6 '12 at 8:15

For conversation (it's almost the same for letters and Emails):

Using "Sie" is appropriate if you have a formal relationship to the other person, if the other person is older, in a higher position (e.g. your boss). It means you respect the other person. If a person tells you only the last name you should use "Sie". (I am a native german speaker and it's much harder for me to insult a person I address formally)

Using "Du" is appropriate if the other person is much younger (you would never say "Sie" to a child), if you are friends, or if you are related. You would also use "du" if you want a personal relationship, so if you are speaking with other students or girls (in your privat time, not in office) you are interested in, you should never use "sie". If a person only tells you the first name, it is the same as offering "du". (Formerly children were used to adress their parents formally, but that's a long time ago.)

"Knigge" is a book which answers many questions to good behaviour with other people. According to them, the person who is higher in hierarchy offers the "du" (source). If you already used "du" and the professor didn't tell you to use "Sie", you should continue to use "du". If a person askes you to use "Sie" or "du", you should definitely do so.

Some of my personal experiences: When I was in school in Bavaria, every teacher used "du" and every pupil "sie". Some of my former teachers offered the "du" after I got my final exam, but it were always the younger teachers. Every teacher asked us if it is still okay if they continue using "du" after we attained full age.

While I was doing community service (every German has to do either community service or military service) I used "sie" for all of my co-workers, as I was 20 and all of them were at least 30 and they had much more experience in the work than I had. All of them offered me to use "du" on my first day, except the boss. She was very young, but her position was higher. I guess she didn't offer me "du" as she had to tell me if I did something wrong and it's easier to do this on a formal basis.

I recently experienced that members of different political parties are used to a different behaviour. If you are on a meeting of the SPD it is very likely that they use "du". If you are on a meeting of the CDU it is very likely that they use "Sie".

A friend of mine who has a very good feeling for beeing politely uses "Sie" when she speaks with other students she works with. I was quite surprised as I would never use "Sie" if I spoke to other students in roughly the same age.

In the Internet (forum, Wikipedia, Social networks): As you don't know the real name of the person you will always use "du".

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A Point that I missed in the previous answers is that you can use "siezen" to mark a line. For instance you are dealing with somebody which you don't want to be friendly with. In business it is used to separate yourself from a supplier for instance even though you work in the same project.

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Good question.

Basically, it depends completely on your conversational partner. But others already gave good answers to that.

I would just want to amend one option: In case of doubt, simply avoid it. Examples:

  • "Wollen Sie etwas essen?" > "Wollen wir etwas essen?"
  • "Entschuldigen Sie, können Sie mir sagen, wie ich zum Bahnhof komme?" > "Entschuldigung, wo ist denn bitte der Bahnhof"
  • etc.

You can actually stretch this very far. It's a nice trick not to create the distance "Sie" induces, but also not to unappropriatly use "Du".

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I once did that with one person every day for half a year, so you can stretch this really far, but it sometimes requires quick thinking when you have to build a completely different sentence, so I don't know how helpful this is for non-native speakers. And you have to be able to check your laughter, because at some point, you will feel completely ridiculous. –  fifaltra Jan 16 at 19:29

There is http://htwkbk.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/du-oder-sie-a-simple-visual-guide.pdf (via http://htwkbk.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/when-to-use-du-and-sie/) which actually is somewhat accurate despite the fact that it probably was written tongue in cheek.

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+1, especially for Munich vs. Berlin. :-) –  Konrad Rudolph May 28 '11 at 13:37

In my opinion the negotiation process is still missing from the answers so far.

If both persons are adults, usually the older or socially higher ranking person gets to call the shots, for example

  • an elderly person (in my opinion it's very rare that they allow Du)
  • your boss
  • the father of your new girlfriend ;)
  • any situation where you are the "new one" in an established group of people (business associates, colleagues, club, ...)

If one of the two is a child, it is mostly asymmetrical. Though sometimes children are allowed to say Du to adults that are not family:

  • close family friends
  • kindergarten teachers (I think, I don't really remember and I don't have children myself...)
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In addition to what has been said there are situations where the informal Du still is generally inappropriate, e.g.:

  • in a traditional (non-fashion) shop like a bakery, in a supermarket etc.
  • in official institutions such as police stations, government departments etc.
  • in a bank
  • on the phone unless you know the person you talk to
  • in hotel receptions
  • when seeking help from a medical doctor

In situations where you are not sure if using the Sie-form may be too formal but feel uncomfortable to use a straight Du you may use a not so complicated avoidance maneuver that is widely used: that is using the third person. This is also the German way to find out:

1) Haben Sie dieses T-Shirt auch in Größe XL?

2) Hast Du dieses T-Shirt auch in Größe XL?

3) Habt Ihr dieses T-Shirt auch in Größe XL?

Most likely you may want to use 1), but using 3) would not offend anybody. Eventually you will be addressed with Du in return. Then you may comfortably switch to using 2).

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Is this really true? Isn't using "Ihr" the same as "Du", in that it is also a personal form? –  Glen Wheeler May 25 '11 at 9:12
    
@Glen Wheeler: I'd put it intermediate between Du and Sie, maybe a bit closer to Du as you hope to be addressed with Du in return. It's a workaround. –  Takkat May 25 '11 at 9:32
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In a shop the use of ihr might be OK, but I would not use it at a police station. –  bernd_k May 27 '11 at 20:51
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I have to disagree that 3) is used as workaround. It is often used, because many people do not know that it is the plural of Du and not of Sie. If a native German waitress asks me "Möchten Sie noch etwas trinken?" than this same waitress also asks "Möchtet Ihr noch etwas trinken?" if the glass of a friend is empty, too. And it's not only one pub where this happens. –  John Smithers Jul 1 '11 at 8:06
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I think the avoidance phrase would rather be: "Gibt's dieses T-Shirt auch in Groesse XL?"... –  Jules Sep 12 '11 at 15:34
  1. If both speakers are adults, this is supposed to be symmetric, so you can wait for the others.

  2. Unfortunately, native speakers have more practice to avoid the issue with complicated avoidance maneuvers in awkward social situations, so you might just want to ask and use your foreigner status as good excuse for asking.

  3. The younger the people, the more they use the informal address. Especially among students or colleagues.

  4. In written emails, one might write something like:

Lieber Herr Wheeler! Ich freue mich, dass Sie mich kontaktieren ....

Schöne Grüße, Susi

(The first name signature indicates a willingness to switch to a more informal address and a shyness to actually ask.)

Liebe Susi!

Ich darf doch du sagen? ....

Liebe Grüße, Glen

.......

Or, in an email to the other participants of your new choir:

Liebe MitsängerInnen! (or Liebe Mitsänger! or Liebe Mitsängerinnen und Mitsänger! or Lieber Chor! if you want to avoid this dividing issue)

Ich hoffe, dass niemand etwas dagegen hat, dass wir per du sind. Ich wollte euch alle zu meiner Gartenparty Ende Juni einladen ....


Note that traditionally there have been strict etiquette rules on who can offer the informal address to whom (e.g. always the older one to the younger or always the woman to the man), but 19th century etiquette is rarely enforced these days. But it is still a matter of power and respect and you should not take the initiative if you are in a clearly subordinate position.

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The "complicated avoidance maneuvers" under 2. are usually more awkward than the sitiuation itself. When someone asks me "Und, sind die Eltern aus dem Urlaub zurück?", this has such a strong connotation of "Uh-uh, duz ich jetzt oder siez ich?" that I tend to never use those. –  balpha May 25 '11 at 6:04

This is not actually a grammar question. The usage of the Du vs Sie is mostly a question of social context and social standing and can differ a lot between situations. There are no strict rules connected with the choice of Du vs Sie. Following a few general guidelines:

  • the younger you are, the more likely you use Du for persons within a similar age group as yourself
  • the more formal the situation, the likelier the Sie Form
  • using the Du is either offered to you, or included in the social rules of an organisation
  • if you're in a professional context and someone older or higher ranking has not offered the Du, you should always use the Sie
  • if someone uses the Du form, you're most likely meant to use it back, if you're an adult
  • if you're someones elder or higher ranking, you may offer the Du, but it is not always recommended
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Foreigners / english speakers will be forgiven for having used the wrong form (it is clear that it was not meant as an offence). It's a culturla question, not a grammatical one, +1 for pointing that out. –  Ingo Sep 8 '11 at 8:48
    
Best compilation because it demonstrates the flexibility of usage. There are no more rules than the Du to underaged and the default Sie in professional contexts. –  Toscho Jun 14 '13 at 14:24

Unless you know someone well or are addressing a child it is safest to use the polite form. This way you don't risk causing offence.

You can take cues from others too, if they address you in the informal form it is probably safe for you to do so in return.

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according to the Knigge addressing someone personal is the same as to invite him to use it too. Until some years ago it was okay for higher ranks (military, schoolteachers, ...) to address someone with a lower rank with 'Du' but being addressed with 'Sie'. Laws are prohibiting this form now. If you happen to meet someone who wants to be addressed politley but uses the personal form for you consider it as being very unpolite. –  Samuel Herzog May 24 '11 at 21:05
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Laws? Now I'm curious. Got any links? I know that my superiors in the Bundeswehr addressed everyone, lower or higher (except when close friends with the person) with "Sie". –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 25 '11 at 13:29

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