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My friend who works remotely as a freelancer illustrator is a non-native German speaker, and is surprised that native speakers who request a quote from her online always start the conversation with her using "du" instead of "Sie".

I've already read on other threads that "du" is indeed the default pronoun on many German discussion forums, but on the other hand I've also found articles telling people to always use "Sie" while dealing with clients, including in business emails.

Are they being blunt or just informal? Also, should she reply to them with "du" or "Sie"?

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    This might depend on the age of her customers add well as the kind of business she is offering. So it might be worth adding that information to your question by an edit (if you have it) – Arsak Aug 14 '18 at 23:42
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    related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/77/… – Takkat Aug 15 '18 at 7:55
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    I am not sure what "online" and "on the Internet" mean in this context. To me it makes a difference whether something happens in a public forum (like this site, even though it is not a forum :) or in private communication. – Carsten S Aug 15 '18 at 12:37
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Wheras generally in German business communication the Sie is preferred, especially in the so called "creative" businesses such as graphic design, advertising, web-design, web-publishing and programming, and also in the "ecosystem"1 of startup enterprises, using Du is very common now. You even can see it as the standard.

As your friend offers her services as an illustrator, she is pretty much in the center of this "creative" sector of the economy, and thus Du would be very much the expected form of addressing everybody.

I suppose that most people in that business would rather be estranged by being called Sie by peers (i.e. co-workers, colleagues, clients, suppliers). However, things always depend on where one locates oneself. There may be very well-established advertising agencies that insist on calling everybody "Sie" especially when they have very high-level customers such as the large publicly traded companies with their strict hierarchies (and managers that earn millions). People in such organisations tend to prefer the Sie, unless some modernistic company culture is imposed on them to use Du, or their lingua franca is anyway English which makes the topic meaningless.

Consequently: addressing your friend by Du is not blunt, it is just like the counterpart is used to do it, obviously including trying to send a message like "we are a young, cool, uncomplicated company". Your friend may simply answer by Du, too. Answering with Sie would probably make people on the recieving side rise an eyebrow.


1) Calling one's business environment an "ecosystem" has become a hype recently especially with startup people.

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Duzen or Siezen is a matter of formality, in respect to the person addressed but also in respect to the situation and to bystanders. This makes it very complicated to find rules. Two common (and baffling) examples:

  • Staff at offices address each other with du and first name, but the department head addresses her staff with Sie and first name. In the reverse direction, it's Sie and last name.
  • Staff at grocery stores address each other with du and last name because customers should not know or use first names when addressing staff. Only the store manager is addressed with Sie and last name, if at all.

If you meet random people in person, it's nice to use Sie at the beginning. But if this isn't a business meeting but rather a pastime, you better switch to du as soon as possible. This is one of the first things people will agree on.

On the internet, being the biggest pastime of all, somehow all German speakers have agreed upon du twenty years ago. So, the situation is reversed. If you are doing serious business after talking to people casually, you actually had to agree on Sie first. This is very awkward and people will refuse to do it, most times. The Sie comes with your attorney, should things have gone awry.

EDIT: People asked for direct answers to your questions.

  • Are they being blunt or just informal? — Informal. The internet default.

  • Also, should she reply to them with "du" or "Sie"? — Reply the same way you are addressed unless there is a reason not to do so. Because that's the default for replies. If you are addressed with du and reply with Sie, it's creating distance by purpose. Likewise, replying on Sie with du creates proximity by purpose. Both are usually unwanted results because it changes the state of affairs.

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    I don't understand why this answer got all these downvotes, and without explanation! The first paragraph is good and the examples exactly match my experience in daily life. The only part I'm not sure about is the one on business communication switching to du: that very much depends on the setting. But it may very well be true in the illustration business, I don't know. Janka, maybe you could add the implications of answering a du with a sie in business (e-mail) communication. – Philipp Aug 15 '18 at 7:45
  • I do not understand the downvotes, but I also think that you do not directly answer the question. – Carsten S Aug 15 '18 at 8:28
  • I added this to the answer. – Janka Aug 15 '18 at 9:31

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