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I am an undergraduate and will be staying with a host family in Mannheim for to learn German. I have never met the host family before and I see them as senior to me, so I used the Sie-form when I first made e-mail contact with them (to say hi and provide personal information).

I'd like to know if I should also use the du-form when talking to them from now on, including over e-mail and when I meet them for the first time.

In my German lessons, I was taught to use the Sie-form with my seniors until the other party formally gives permission to be informal with them. My host family did not do so explicitly, but they have replied my e-mail using the du-form.

german-way.com says

Some German-speakers you’ve never met before may address you as “du” right away. If they do, return the favor by also using the familiar you.

P.S. I am new to German culture and any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Edit (an update that might be helpful): My host family turned out to be a friendly elderly lady (60+ years old). Strangely, she refers to me with "Sie" in real life and "Du" over text. She never replied me when I asked how I should refer to her, so I have been sticking to "Sie". She is fine with this.

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  • @Loong thank you! I rather like the idea of asking them directly. It would not be considered rude of me to be formal with them when I ask, right? Excuse me if I seem overly cautious and nitpicky, but I want to make a good impression. – jessica May 21 '16 at 11:27
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    Jessica, I appreciate your concerns as to not offend your host family. From what you have written I would say that using "du" yourself when you talk/write to them is perfectly fine and they most likely won't mind at all. However, as you come to learn German and they host you and offer to teach you their (mine, too) culture, why don't you just ask them directly? Tell them that you respect them being senior and that you are unsure what form to use. They will be happy you asked (showing that you care) and will gladly teach you a first lesson. – Thomas May 21 '16 at 13:54
  • Love the question and the answers, because I've now been living outside of Germany - and in the more informal Anglo-Saxon world - for more than half of my life. I now have problems figuring the correct form of address out myself. I may use the formal form, but feel ... not sure how to put it: vaguely annoyed? – Marakai May 22 '16 at 1:50
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    Related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/77/… Ich finde, dass hier nur Antworten geschrieben werden sollten, die auf die spezielle Situation eingehen. Allgemeine Antworten könnten auf die Frage im Link passen. – Carsten S May 22 '16 at 10:49
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The one-sided "Du" is essentially limited to adults vs. children.* If an adult person X calls another adult person Y "Du", but expects to be addressed as "Sie" by Y, I'd consider that as an offense. So, for all practical purposes, the quotation from german-way.com is correct: If somebody calls you "Du", you may treat it as an offer to use "Du" yourself.


* and to certain hierarchic situations, e.g., coaches vs. athletes in some sports. (Non-athletes find this bizarre.)

  • I find that it depends also on the generation and outlook of the people in question. Some younger people, but also older people, especially of the 68' generation might find the Sie form a bit odd and might even find it cold and unfriendly. All of that bear in mind though that they realise that you are not native speaker and will hopefully guide you through ;) I would probably just ask just to be sure what they prefer. – malte May 23 '16 at 10:03
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You (and the textbooks) are making too much of a big deal out of this. :)

In my experience, you'll have a hard time finding someone who is going to freak out if you use Du instead of Sie, especially if they hear your accent and realize that German isn't your native tongue. If they reply with Sie, try to switch to using Sie with them because obviously they care.

In your particular case, they've switched to Du, so you can too. But here's the thing. Germans are very direct, if you have a question, ask them they'll be happy to talk about it. I promise.

source - I was born in the US to German parents and was raised there and have now lived in Germany for the past 4 years.

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There're certain "rules" or as to who is supposed to "offer" the "du". (The "du" s usually something that is offered - not asked for.) If you're in a hierarchy, then obviously the superior is the one to offer it first. Otherwise you normally go by age, which means the older one is supposed to make the first step. There are certain occasions where everyone uses "du". Some people say above 2000m of altitude there's no "Sie", I've hardly heard a "Sie" in the sauna (where everyone is naked and thus - in a way - considered equal).

Since those things don't apply in your case, there's nothing wrong with using "Sie" in the first place and I'd expect you to be offered the "du" quite soon. It's not unlikely to be the first thing that's done once you meet in person...

Just a few more remarks:

Germans usually know that this is a difficult issue for foreigners and I think it's close to impossible for you host family to feel offended no matter what you do.

As for the "rules", they vary widely from individual to individual. Older people usually prefer "Sie" where as younger people tend to care much less. I'm almost 40 and I don't mind the "du" except for very special occasions such as a policeman giving me a ticket. On the internet I normally default to "du" (unless I know the people personally) whereas in real life I normally use "Sie" for adults.

When I was young, even small children were taught to use "Sie" for adults. Now my wife (elementary school teacher) starts teaching that somewhere around 2nd grade.

Using "Sie" normally implies using the last name (Herr/Frau ). (The old "Fräulein" for "Miss" is deprecated - perhaps because the marital status is considered a private issue.) There are some exceptions for nurses, monks and nuns who are likely be called by their first name but still addressed with "Sie".

Christians at a specific occasion in a service use "du" for their pastor or priest and even the Pope (though in Latin), but only then and not in a normal conversation.

As far as writing goes, "Sie" is always capitalized whereas "du" is usually not (any more). The capitalization is meant to express a special respect. In the internet, some consider an uncapitalized "sie" as an insult. I tend to disobey the rule for "du" which I capitalize if I appreciate the conversation, but this is just a personal habit.

To add a bit more "useless knowledge" as my wife would call it:

Using "du" for a policeman is likely considered an insult with you can actually be fined for (not likely for a foreigner, I guess) unless you are Dieter Bohlen who officially gets away with it. He argued that he's using "du" for absolutely everyone and because of that in his case it's not an insult. Don't know if this is true, but I once read that he is supposed to have said that he even uses "du" to address God (which everyone does) and there's no higher authority than Him.

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    As a non-native Austrian resident, these unwritten unspoken rules drive me mad! I can never figure out when to do what. Back on my home world, we only "Sie" our queen. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 21 '16 at 21:15
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    These unspoken rules are also Hard for native Germans like me. Moreover, from my point of view, the usage of 'Sie' vs. 'Du' is becoming less and less strict. – daniel.neumann May 21 '16 at 21:32
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    All true, but not helpful to the OP. – Carsten S May 21 '16 at 21:54
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    " I'd expect you to be offered the "du" quite soon.". They have already offered it by replying using "Du" and first names. This is an invitation to switch to "du". – Polygnome May 22 '16 at 13:33
  • Du was only capitalised in letters in the pre-1996-spelling. In literary works, when citing in articles etc., lowercase was used. – Jan May 28 '16 at 12:41
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Since they are older, they will initiate Du if they want to. You should not do it yourself without prompting.

How do I know? This is one of the key things I was taught in German before going to Germany (I am not German but I lived in DE/AT/CH for around 10 years total). I found that while people may indeed tolerate Du from a foreigner, they will be uncomfortable with it, and you should then naturally want to switch back (if you care about the other person). I found it quite rude to be addressed as Du by some sales type in a trendy store and would always use Sie back- that's how engedeutscht I was/am. To me, it is about respect, and German culture is at least traditionally very strong on that.

That said, the familiar Du is creeping into corporate circles in Germany which is a shame because to me it has this negative connotation of disrespect and enforced collegiality.

  • You're essentially repeating what had already been said in more detailed answers. Can you expand, so it seems less than a "me too" answer? – Marakai May 23 '16 at 3:29
  • True but I felt that the conversation was becoming more complicated than it really should be and my answer was an attempt to help OP see the one takeaway he/she needs. – codervince May 23 '16 at 10:33
  • The host family used "Du" in their e-mail. The question was whether this should be taken as an implicit offer to use "Du" mutually, or whether the OP should wait for a formal offer. – Uwe May 26 '16 at 15:27
  • In that case: Its hard for them to be 100% sincere if they havent yet met OP, but the indication is that they would probably use Du and Id guess within 5 minutes of their first meeting. I am willing to wager 0.05 btc on this outcome. – codervince May 27 '16 at 7:30
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It depends a little on how old you are. Older persons (I'm 52) would use "Du" for any person younger or looking younger than 14 - 16. But I would expect the formal "Sie" from them. In my school studends were adressed with Sie from the 10 grade (approx. 16)

It sounds a bit complicated, but it isn't. Use "Sie" in your Mails, but everyone will forgive you if you use "Du".

If you are in Germany your hosts will offer you the "du" very quickly. Either at first sight or, like I would do it, on the first "offical" meeting with whole family, usually the first meal.

However you should keep in mind, that if you learn German, in all business communication the formal language is not optional.

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It depends on your age. If you are (or look) like you're under 18, some adults may expect to get "Sie" from you even when they say "du". But normally, if somebody doesn't think you are a child under 15, they will be OK with being addressed the same way they address you.

So if your host family is writing "du" in your emails, and they know that you are an adult, you can safely respond with "du" as well.

There is also a regional difference to consider: In northern Germany, it is much more common for adults to use "du" with each other than it is in the south. But in a host family situation, I'd expect people to offer you the "du" quickly in any area.

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