Would a computer use du or Sie for the user?

Example: “You have unsaved changes.”

  • Du hast ungespeicherte Nachrichten. — You have unsaved messages.
  • Sie haben ungespeicherte Nachrichten. — You have unsaved messages.

Both occur, but often neither is used, because it’s usually possible to phrase a dialog or message in an impersonal way without becoming too distant, e.g. passive voice or man.

  • Name hat ungespeicherte Nachrichten. — Name has unsaved messages.
  • Ich habe ungespeicherte Nachrichten. — I have unsaved messages.
  • Es gibt ungespeicherte Nachrichten. — There are unsaved messages.
  • ## ungespeicherte Nachrichten — ## unsaved messages
  • ungespeicherte Nachrichten: ## — unsaved messages: ##
  • ## Nachrichten nicht gespeichert. — ## messages not saved.
  • ## Nachrichten noch nicht gespeichert. — ## messages not saved yet.
  • ## Nachrichten wurden noch nicht gespeichert. — ## messages have not been saved yet.
  • Sollen alle Nachrichten gespeichert werden? — Should all messages be saved?
  • Nachrichten speichern? — Save messages?
  • Alle Nachrichten sollen gespeichert werden! — All messages should be saved!
  • Alle Nachrichten speichern! — Save all messages!
  • Speichere alle Nachrichten! — Save all messages!

Some of the examples above turn the original informative statement into an actionable option, dialog or command. Which one of these is most appropriate, depends a lot on the situation and local user interface guidelines, which may apply to other languages as well. That would be more on topic elsewhere, though.

Sometimes, e.g. in video games, the software has a persona and the user (or player) does, too. Their (simulated) social relationship determines the level of familiarity, respect and politeness, hence the appropriate pronoun. A lot of professional software nowadays does the tedious tasks a secretary or other underling would have done in earlier times, so the boss – even if low in human hierarchy – would probably expect respectful Sie. Other software may be seen more like a colleague, therefore could use friendly du.

  • You state that the formal tense of the sentence feels impersonal or distant. In other languages with a formal or polite tense the person being addressed as such would take it as respect of as an honorific. In general, do German speakers feel as if you are being impolite if you use the formal tense as in it's not a warm, friendly way of addressing someone? As a contrast, in some Asian languages if you address older people, for example, in the informal tense, it's taken as an insult. Would there be some case where a German person would feel insulted by not being addressed formally? – noobsmcgoobs Apr 17 '16 at 23:23
  • @noobsmcgoobs There are some other relevant questions on this matter around here. Both, du and Sie, directly involve the addressee, thereby creating some kind of personal closeness, but du is of course more intimate and (usually) friendly. Sie may be expected due to hierarchy or respect and violations of such customs (in both directions) may be used as insults or even to emphasize a curse word. – Crissov Apr 18 '16 at 5:11
  • @noobsmcgoobs You never adress someone with the informal "du" unless it is either a child, relative or someone who has offered the "du" to you. The usual way to adress someone is the formal "Sie". "Sie" is always the correct, polite way when in doubt. Using "du" when not appropriate will be seen as unprofesional, maybe even sleazy. That being said, wether it is appropriate for a software to adress the user as "du" or "Sie" is matter of some debate. I know of several pieces of software that have both forms "de" for the formal "Sie", and "de-informal" for the informal "du". – Polygnome Apr 18 '16 at 8:59
  • The last three options are clearly shouting at the user. In fact, they make me feel as if I had done something wrong. Definitely a no-go, IMO. – FRob Apr 18 '16 at 12:02
  • @FRob They were intended to be “shouted” at the computer. You’re right, though, that action buttons, checkbox labels in configuration options or menu entries usually don’t show an exclamation mark. – Crissov Apr 18 '16 at 12:08

It depends on the company making the software in question. For example, Facebook always uses "du", Microsoft always uses "Sie", Apple and Google use a mixture, depending on product and context. Typically "Sie" is preferred in more formal/business contexts, while "du" is preferred in more informal/social contexts.

To give at least a couple of data points, I've looked through the list of most popular apps of 2015. Of these 10 apps, three (Amazon, Skype, Ebay Kleinanzeigen) use "Sie" and seven (Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Shpock, Snapchat) use "du", including the three most popular ones.

Also here are the results for the ten most popular websites (in 2013): Six (Bild, Chip, GMX, eBay, Spiegel, Amazon) use "Sie", and four (Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Google) use "du". Interestingly the four most popular ones use "du".

  • This is interesting, in Czech Facebook uses the equivalent of Sie (vy). The equivalent of du (ty) is really expected only in websites for teenagers and I usually notice it out of place when it happens somewhere else. – Vladimir F Apr 18 '16 at 10:01
  • I would argue that the first six attempt to reach a much broader audience and that the final four are heavily influenced by their origin in computer sciences. – Jan Apr 29 '16 at 8:13
  • Microsoft doesn't always use Sie: while Windows always uses "Sie", the German version of Cortana always uses "du". Microsoft's websites are mixed (Windows 10 & Surface are advertised with Sie, XBox and Lumia use Du.) – Felix Dombek Jan 27 '17 at 20:15

Got an answer from another source (a native German):

A corporation like Microsoft or Photoshop would address its customers with "Sie". A game would in most cases not. Set song title Infinitive.

  • 2
    Depends on the game, but most times, I'd still expect Sie, especially in games where you are a ruler. Only if the target demographic really only consists of children (or the style of the game is childish) would the Du become truly appropriate. – Chieron Apr 17 '16 at 10:02
  • Take the classiv you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike: Would you really prefer "Sie sind ..." ? – Ingmar Apr 18 '16 at 5:58
  • 1
    @Chieron In most games in which you are a ruler I would expect Ihr. – Jan Apr 18 '16 at 17:47

It depends on the usage. A formal usage would prefer Sie, a informal usage would use du.

It is similar to the real life. In a shop and a restaurant I expect a Sie, in a shop or bar for younger and 'cooler' people a du is ok. Same for the computer.

A not so serious classification: Programs in Cobol and Fortran use Sie, Python and Ruby uses du.

Another example: PHPBB offers two language packs: One German (Casual Honorifics) Deutsch (Du)‎ and a German (Formal Honorifics) Deutsch (Sie)‎. A forum for professional usage would prefer Sie, a more private forum uses du. And a good forum let's you decide how the computer should talk to you.

Short answer: if in doubt, "Sie".

As a German software developer, I try to stay clear from "Sie" or "Du". It is perfectly possible to do so without sounding stilted or weird. For example, instead of "klicken Sie hier, um...", it is perfectly fine to use "Hier klicken, um...". It is also a nice excercise to find ways to write stuff more concise to not even have to choose what to do. For example, instead of "Hier klicken, um zu speichern" a simple button with the label "Speichern" is sufficient. This is especially obvious for web sites. I would never have a link labeled "new messages: click me" in a web site. In the same vein, to answer your example, I would not output a message "Sie haben ungelesene Nachrichten", but simply some GUI element which says "ungelesene Nachrichten".

As has been mentioned in the comments, different usages of "Sie" and "Du" pervade German live and it is probably not easily explained to foreigners. For example, some waiters may use "Du" for some customers, while other waiters (at a different location) might use "Sie". In both cases, the other variant may raise eyebrows. There are companies where it would be deadly to use "Du" between colleagues, others where it would be a no-go to use "Sie". Etc.

For example google maps recently updated its computer voice and now address its users with du instead of sie. This is because the audience of apps gets younger and younger and sie is more for people 20+. I think Outlook should ever "siez" me. WhatsApp or Facebook can "duz" me.

Always use "Sie" if there is a chance that the customers are not teenagers anymore. Sad but true: in Austria you can even offend people by using "Du" instead of "Sie".

  • 1
    Not only in Austria. If you don't know the other person, and the other person is not a child, teenager or relative (or you get introduced by a friend), then the formal "Sie" is the only acceptable form in wide parts of Germany. Calling someone "Du" without it being offered is rude in private settings, and unprofessional in work settings. – Polygnome Apr 18 '16 at 16:11

„Sie“ and only „Sie“ is correct, unless it is clear that the target audience consists of children and teenagers (ie learning platform for children).

However, there is an even better solution: offer an option. Owncloud and other web applications offer to switch between Du/Sie.

Your Answer

 

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.