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?
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 and 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.
This is not actually a grammar question. The usage of the
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
Sie. Following a few general guidelines:
- the younger you are, the more likely you use
Dufor persons within a similar age group as yourself
- the more formal the situation, the likelier the
- using the
Duis 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
- if someone uses the
Duform, 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
If both speakers are adults, this is supposed to be symmetric, so you can wait for the others.
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.
The younger the people, the more they use the informal address. Especially among students or colleagues.
In written emails, one might write something like:
Lieber Herr Wheeler!
Ich freue mich, dass Sie mich kontaktieren ....
(The first name signature indicates a willingness to switch to a more informal address and a shyness to actually ask.)
Ich darf doch du sagen?
Or, in an email to the other participants of your new choir:
(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.
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.
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
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".
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"
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".
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...)
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:
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.
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.
Use Sie with white-haired people as a sign of respect.
Maybe use Sie at work, but it depends where you work, they might laugh at you if you use Sie in a relaxed job.
The Germans are as confused as I am regarding this matter, so it’s ok to mess it up ;-)
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
As soon as you address somebody by his or her first name, then you would use du:
e.g. Hallo Peter, wie geht's dir?
On the other hand when you call a person by the surname, you would use Sie:
e.g. Frau Müller, können Sie mir helfen?
note: always use a capital lettre with Sie.
Edit: What I wrote above is the usual case, meant as a direct answer to the question, there are some exceptions to this rule however.