When should you speak to people using "du" instead of "Sie" if you want to be polite but not seem snobby?

My parents were German but I was born and raised in Canada. My German is fairly limited but I have many relatives in Germany and have visited there three times (all as an adult). I had never met most of those relatives before so it seemed rude to use "du" with them but I also felt that they may have been slightly put off by me saying "Sie". Just to be clear, the relatives I'm referring to were fairly close relatives: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not 3rd cousins or the like.

Also, in the case of unrelated strangers, would I ever use "du" or always "Sie"? My inclination would be to always use "Sie" but I remember speaking to a young French girl - a niece of a friend - using "vous" and being told that I should always use "tu" for children, even if they were complete strangers. It occurs to me that German might work the same but maybe it doesn't.

  • Less specific, but probably helpful: german.stackexchange.com/questions/77/… – Carsten S Nov 2 at 7:33
  • And yes, the choice of "du" and "sie" in German is very close to what the French do between "tu" and "vous". I'm not aware of any differences. – tofro Nov 2 at 9:04
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    @tofro, I think the French use "vous" more, but I may be wrong, and it may have changed over the last decades. – Carsten S Nov 2 at 10:13
  • @CarstenS I guess that’s just as regionally dispersed as in Germany - Paris is different from the Cote d‘azure, an Frankfurt different from Berlin – tofro Nov 2 at 10:21
  • As a non-native speaker, you're likely to be more easily forgiven in case you use the wrong form (if there even is a wrong form). – Bregalad Nov 5 at 13:35

You never ever siezen family members, regardless which grade. It would be very rude, as if you aren't related to that person. The only excuse is not knowing someone is a family member.

Children are always addressed du by adults. The border is somewhat at age 16. If you address young adults as Sie, you are forcing them into an adult role, and if you address them as du, you are forcing them into a child role. Both may be awkward. You cannot choose not to force them.

General rules:

  • du creates closeness by purpose
  • Sie creates distance by purpose

So, it's really important you know the relation you have to another person before you even meet them. If you cannot avoid meeting unknown persons who may be family members (or not), the only safe way to handle this is telling your full name at the very beginning, or who you are related to.

Hallo, ich bin Henry, der Enkel von Heide.

Then, the other person will address you as Sie or du and you only had to mirror it.

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    Especially for a foreigner - obvious by your limited German - who is not familiar with German habits, it would also be acceptable to ask whether you should use "Du" or "Sie" in cases where the rules of thumb given by Janka don't apply (like young adults that are close friends of your family). I'm not sure if the French rules are exactly the same as German rules, but they should be similar at least. – Volker Landgraf Nov 2 at 8:48
  • Very helpful, Janka. It is now clear that I made some social errors on my past visits to Germany. Fortunately, I didn't seem to upset anyone too much; I suppose they could tell from my poor German that I didn't know the rules. One follow up question, if I may: would one use "du" as well with people who are related by marriage, like the wife of a relative? Would I use "Du" with the girlfriend or boyfriend of a relative? I don't know if I will get back to Germany again but I should know the rules if I do. – Henry Nov 2 at 13:56
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    If you address the wife of a relative with Sie, she will complain to her husband not being welcome in his family. Prepare for drama. – Janka Nov 2 at 16:45

Concerning unrelated strangers:

The general rule is that unrelated adult persons have to be adressed by Sie. There is this convention, that a special event is needed to change that between two persons (e.g. colleagues have a "Schnaps" together). Also it is a convention that the elder person has to invite the younger one to use the "Du" in casual situations, and the higher ranking person in hierarchies of any kind.

But times are changing slightly now: For instance I'm working in the IT industry and in many companies the "Du" is used between all colleagues including CEOs. Especially in cases where the English language is used (because of foreigners working in that companie).

Sometimes there are strange situations: If you have a chief in your company whom you know from outside and you've been familiar with him for a couple of time, you say "Du" to him except on very official events in front of the chiefs. That is complicated and seems to be strange (even for me), but IMHO that will change in the next few decades.

In a traditional German "Gaststätte" (restaurant) you will say "Sie" to all waiters, in a pub ("Kneipe") "Du" is used between all age groups. Listen to what others do.

And in general foreigners are excused for preferring "Du" for not beeing able to know the rules.

In case of relatives it is exactly like Janka said: Always "Du".

  • Also it is a convention that the elder person has to invite the younger one to use the "Du" - that is true in casual situations. In professional situations, however, hierarchy takes precedence over age, i.e. it is the higher ranking person who has to offer the "Du" – Volker Landgraf Nov 2 at 9:36
  • @VolkerLandgraf This is true, I added it in my answer. In most cases the higher ranking person is the elder one, but you are right in what you say. – Ingo Bochmann Nov 2 at 10:10
  • This does not address the specific situation in the question. If this is the kind of answer that we get, the question should have been closed as a duplicate. – Carsten S Nov 2 at 10:15
  • @Carsten The OP asked for both relatives and unrelated strangers. That makes it hard to mark the question as duplicate. In the last paragraph he asked for unrelated strangers and I tried to answer this. For the relatives there is a clear answer by Janka. – Ingo Bochmann Nov 2 at 12:18
  • You are right. I was frustrated by the duplication, but more so than reasonable, and of course you are not to blame for it. – Carsten S Nov 5 at 8:01

You are now rummaging around in an IMHO utterly complicated area of the German language, or perhaps it is more related to German culture. The language aspect itself is not particularly complicated. I have been living as a foreigner for almost 25 years now in Germany and am still often enough not sure wether to use the polite or informal form when talking to people. Native speakers also have the same problem.

Many native speakers tell me to always use the polite form if I am not sure, but at least I feel awkward if politely addressed in a for me obviously informal setting, and I also know natives sharing the same opinion. Using the polite form in an inappropriate situation may very well signal snobbiness or a request to keep social distance, which is neither wanted nor intended. Only last week, a new waiter at my favourite pub actually said 'Sie' to me and honestly, my first gut feeling was somewhere between 'did I do something wrong, or am I already that old?'.

Quite often, this mess leads me and others to not directly address people, but somehow rephrase the sentence to avoid talking directly to someone, e.g. instead of 'could you (du or Sie?) please give me ...' you could express the same with 'I'd like to have ...' without having to choose between du or Sie. Even Janka's suggestion to 'never ever' use the polite form when speaking to family members is not without exception. It is not common, but I know Germans using the polite form when talking to their parents in law, and I don't have the impression that it is to convey a subtle 'I don't really like you'.

To make an educated guess, you must at least consider geographical, social and cultural aspects of the situation you are in.

Roughly speaking, Sie is more common the further north you are in the German speaking area. In some districts of Austria, people are commonly not using Sie at all, but du in all situations. I have even read Austrians describing the formal address as a completely inappropriate 'prostration to a superiority' and in any situation out of place. In Munich, I have occasionally been addressed with 'du' both in grocery stores and by the police. Considering that saying 'du' to the police elsewhere in Germany could cost you a hefty fine, we are even moving in and out of indictability by choosing the right words.

In most social situations, I would say that 'du' is always appropriate, perhaps unless you are together with clearly much older people or together with professional colleagues, which you in a non-social setting would address with 'Sie'. It has during the 25 years I have been living here becoming much more common to use 'du' also in professional situations, both at work and when being addressed as a customer e.g. in a shop or on a web page. IKEA was one of the first companies, which consequently addressed all their customers with 'du'. For a few other examples: Amazon is using 'Sie', but the customer's first name and eBay is not consequent with a mix of both 'Sie' and 'du'.

Then you have different cultural settings, in which you simply have to learn how to behave. In internet discussion forums, it is mostly considered rude to use 'Sie'. Radio amateurs also come to my mind. They are also always using 'du'. It is in many companies and also other organizations policy to use 'du' in any situation.

So, good luck! Whatever you do, you are at some point bound to do something wrong, but don't let that prevent you from speaking German ;-)

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    You wrote "Native speakers also have the same problem." I've to admit that's true. – Ingo Bochmann Nov 5 at 11:23
  • It sounds like the culture itself is in a state of flux as it gradually becomes less formal. In the meantime, I suppose everyone has to play it by ear and do their best not to offend anyone, although any idea of what is right is changing steadily. I suppose it's not that big a problem for me since I haven't been to Europe since 1999 and have no immediate prospect of returning but it must get annoying for those dealing with the issues more often. – Henry Nov 6 at 5:16
  • I didn't know that even german speakers have trouble deciding between du and Sie. I thought it was strictly a foreigner problem. It is quite funny to me because german has only 2 pronouns and this problem still exists, whereas in my language there are a few dozens of pronouns, imagine how bad it would become ;-). – Tung Nguyen Nov 10 at 0:42

No contradicition to the answers already given, but in general "Du" is related to adressing someone by the forename, while "Sie" is used for people one approaches with "Frau/Herr" and surname. So if you need a practicable solution, just ask yourself if you would approach someone by forename or by "Mrs./Mr." in English and there you go.

Of course, there are exceptions of this, rule. The so called Hamburger Sie is a combination of forename and Sie, and the Münchner Du is in contrary the combination of Du and surname. If one looks at German dialects, it's even more complex. For example, there is the Berliner Er. Breaking the "always Du within Family"-rule, at least in the south of Germany it was common until the 19th century, that grandparents were adressed using a pluralis maiestatis ("Ihr"). But these exceptions should not bother you. They are rather rare and absolutely noone expects a foreign language speaker to use them.

  • The problem with the suggestion in your first paragraph is that we hardly ever use Mrs/Mr in English any more. We're increasingly informal; this has been going on since at least the 1980s. Before then, a boss at work would always be Mr. Jones but starting in the early 80s, it became very common to simply call him by his first name. Nowadays, even total strangers who talk to you start calling you by your first name. For example, I called tech support once and they looked up my account and started calling me by my first name, not Mr. and my last name. Culture is changing everywhere! – Henry Nov 6 at 5:21

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