In school, a teacher once told us about former Bundespräsident Heinrich Lübke, who was said to have been infamous for using the so-called Lübke-English, where German idioms and expressions are translated into English verbatim. Several of these expressions, such as “Equal goes it loose” (Gleich geht’s los = It will start any moment) have become well-known in Germany. It turns out though that all Lübke “quotes” were made up by the magazine Spiegel in a fake report and “letters to the editor” written by alleged readers, which were in fact Spiegel employees (why am I not surprised….).
Anyway, one of the most famous quotes (which has later also been attributed to chancellor Kohl) is “You can say you to me”. Does it make any sense in English? No. Because what else am I supposed to call someone in English? English only has “you”. Even if you were lucky enough to meet Her Majesty the Queen (as I was on June 25, 2015, yay!) – you’d address her with “you”. In German though, the sentence has a meaning, because we have two forms of address: the more formal “Sie” and the informal “Du” (just like the French have “vous” and “tu”).
The rules for which address to use are a bit confusing and they become even more confusing over time since they are changing or at least are applied differently by people.
So let me first give you the traditional rules. “Sie” oder “Du” is much more than just a form of address. It carries meaning with it, can tell a lot about relationships, respect or liking.
- Children are always addressed with “Du”. Up to what age? Tricky. I remember that in school we would be addressed with “Sie” once we entered 10th (or 11th? sooo long ago….) grade. Therefore, with a 16 or 17-year-old, you might want to ask what they prefer, though as far as I can tell, most young people prefer the “Du” and feel a bit uncomfortable with “Sie”.
- Family members are always addressed with “Du”. (There are very occasional exceptions, especially in older generations and with new in-laws, but those are extremely rare).
- Friends usually address each other with “Du”.
With anyone outside of those groups, it gets a bit more difficult. I said before that – for most Germans – the different forms of address carry different meaning. In German, when we want to switch from the “Sie”-address to the “Du”-address, we use the term “offering the Du” (das Du anbieten). It is offered, like a present, like a favour. There is even a ceremony for it, though as far as I know it’s not used much anymore. It’s called Brüderschaft trinken – drinking to brotherhood/fraternity. So, let’s say, Herr Müller and Frau Schneider have been colleagues for some years. At the office Christmas party, they are unusually relaxed and Frau Schneider says “We’ve worked together for such a long time, Herr Müller. Why don’t we drink Brüderschaft?”
Frau Schneider has just offered Herr Müller the “Du”. Another rule of thumb – the “Du” is offered by the person higher in hierarchy, the older person or, if both genders are involved and the rank and age are similar, by the woman.
Herr Müller is delighted. He gets two drinks, Frau Schneider takes one of the drinks. They link the arms of the drink-holding hands and take a sip from their respective glass. Then they exchange a cheek kiss. After that, they tell each other their first names (not mandatory, especially if the first names are known). And – there you go, from now on, they will be addressing each other with “Du” and their first names, instead of with “Sie” and last names.
Most of the time, the transition from “Sie” to “Du” is made more easily, by one person simply suggesting that they use “Du”. Still, the fact that there is such a ceremony as Brüderschaft trinken tells you that there’s more to the switch of address. The “Du” can mean quite a lot, with the “Du” I’m offering more closeness than with the “Sie”. Traditionally, the “Du” means: we’re friends or family, we’re close to each other, we’ll stand up for each other, we like each other (the last one is debatable in the case of some family members, of course). The “Du” is the inner circle. It assumes familiarity. “Sie” on the other hand shows distance (not necessarily in a negative way, just as the opposite to familiarity) and respect. This is even reflected in the law. Addressing someone with “Du” against their will is an insult. It can be brought to court. This does of course not include cases where one makes a simple mistake. The person who has been addressed with “Du” must feel insulted and the person using the “Du” address must have done it in order to insult. Still, the fact that there are court decisions about this shows how important the right form of address can be.
While offering the “Du” is usually a sign that a relationship has developed well (or that the person offering the “Du” is extremely insensitive…), reverting from “Du” back to “Sie” is a really bad sign. You’re on “Du” terms with someone, they go back to addressing you with “Sie” – friendship over. It’s a very subtly-open (this contradiction in terms is made on purpose) way to showing the other person “I don’t like you anymore, I want more distance.”
There is a famous sketch by Germany’s most wonderful humorist Loriot – who had a great eye for German quirks – about two couples going out to dinner together. It’s called Kosakenzipfel and you can find it on Youtube – in German. The couples met five years before during their vacation, liked each other and want to celebrate their friendship with a meal. In the beginning, the mood is extremely cordial and the “Du” is offered in a formal, somewhat awkward little speech by one of the husbands. Throughout the evening, though, the couples start to argue over a dessert (yes, a dessert). You can tell the exact moment when the friendship is over – it’s when they revert back to “Sie”. That’s it. Point of no return, bridges burned. Friendship over.
So, you see, it’s not all that easy. Still, as I mentioned above, the rules are changing a bit. The basic rule remains – when you meet someone new or in your daily dealings with sales people, doctors, conductors etc. you use the “Sie”. Also, if you’re not sure how to address someone, I recommend that you use the “Sie”.
Younger people don’t even do that, they say “Du” right away. My friend Simone and I once met to see an exhibition, and she brought two of her friends. As we were in “friend-of-a-friend territory”, they started to address me with “Du” immediately. (I’ll leave out the bit about me not noticing and then asking whether they were okay with us using “Du”. It makes me look weird and Simone still laughs when she remembers it.) – Students won’t bother with “Sie”, and in some work surroundings it’s not customary either. Internet forums also use the “Du” – in fact it looks rather strange when the occasional “Sie”-addresser pops up.
Another rule of thumb: the more laid-back the environment, the more people tend to use “Du” right away. Simone lives in a Frankfurt district that is quite famous for being laid-back and liberal. When we meet, we often go into cafes or restaurants in that district. The staff in those places always addresses us with “Du”. Simone probably never even noticed, but unfortunately for her, she’s friends with one of the most formal people on the planet – me, and I keep complaining about it to her. She carries that burden with remarkable strength.
Why do I complain? Well, first of all, as I said: I’m formal. I don’t like to switch to “Du” quickly for the reason I explained above: it’s not a simple form of address to me, but carries too much familiarity to be used so freely. I feel uncomfortable with it. I’m not telling you that to show you how weird I am – in fact many Germans think like me. I definitely don’t care to use the “Du” address with people I don’t like. Of my five bosses, four wanted to switch to “Du” rather quickly. With two of them, that was fine, I liked them and worked well with them. The other two I didn’t like. In the first case, I grudgingly adhered, in the second case (remembering how uncomfortable I had felt with the other boss), I refused.
“Du” and “Sie” at work is a particularly sensitive topic. In most companies, the basic rule is using “Sie” and then deciding individually whether to switch to “Du”. It can be tricky to say “Du” to people at work – can you still keep professional distance when it’s necessary, such as in a difficult feedback situation? Also, many Germans don’t want to get too familiar with colleagues anyway – “work is work and schnapps is schnapps” is a famous German proverb, meaning that work and private life are two different things. There is a compromise for those who think the “Sie” is too formal, but don’t want to revert to “Du” yet: the so-called Hamburger Du. Here, the address is still “Sie”, but the first name is used, rather than the last name.
Have I confused you now? Well, why should you feel different than many, many Germans? 😉 As the rules are so flexible, there are quite a lot of people who aren’t sure what to use when. Do an internet search on “duzen oder siezen” (=”saying Du or Sie”) and you will find quite a lot of articles or forum discussions. My rule of thumb remains: when in doubt, stick with “Sie”. That way, maybe some people will consider you a bit too formal or even strange (yes, I’m speaking from experience), but at least nobody will be insulted. Also, regardless how comfortable you are with the “Du”, don’t offer it too freely. It can make some people uncomfortable, especially as refusing the “Du” offer is not considered polite. Did I make it more confusing now? Okay, I’ll stop here…