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'Sie' or 'Du' in German?


Have you ever been facing the question of whether you should address someone with Sie (= siezen) or Du (= duzen) in German?


The answer to this question is not always easy – even native speakers are getting confused by this topic over and over again.


After all: You can get a lot wrong here. If you use du towards someone you should rather address with Sie, it can seem rude or condescending. It's a bit like being in a restaurant and grabbing the salt from the neighboring table without asking for it: even if it won’t do any harm, you’re intruding on someone else’s private space.


On the other hand, it will seem stiff and overly formal if you address someone with Sie when it should be du.


In this article you will find out:

Sie or du???

What do the different forms for "you: Sie or Du mean, how to form them and you will get tips on what to say if you are not sure.





Sie or Du – what’s the difference?


In the German language, like in most European languages, there are two ways to address someone.


  • Sie is formal – it shows respect.

  • Du (plural: Ihr) is informal – it shows familiarity.


Unfortunately, there are no fixed rules, such as you find them in grammar. On the contrary: a lot has been changing within recent decades and even years!


50 years ago, it was customary to only use Du for family members and children. Even close friends or young people, like university students, have addressed each other with Sie – even if they were celebrating cheerfully together.


My uncle even formulated his marriage proposal using Sie!


25 years ago, young people were already using the Du amongst each other. But many adults preferred to keep the Sie. It was also normal for children to use Sie for adults, even if they were parents of close friends.


And, of course, you would have used Sie for the colleagues at the workplace!


Today we are less formal ... but with that, the topic has become a lot more complicated...


Freunde kann man duzen.

When do I use ‘Sie’?


As a rule of thumb, use Sie for adults.


This is especially important for people you’re not acquainted with. This applies to everyday life and the professional world.


Sie shows respect:

Du oder Sie im Beruf?

  • towards the elderly and older people than you in general

  • towards higher ranks

  • towards strangers

  • in a formal context


The Sie is polite and does not automatically mean that the relationship must be distant.

Especially for elderly people, this is simply the appropriate way of addressing each other. They would rather feel that using ‘du’ in these situations is perceived as too intimate or disrespectful.

Polizisten muss man siezen.

You may have heard about a court ruling. In this case, a policeman was addressed with du which was considered an insult, meaning: a legal offence.


Does that mean that you will go to jail if you accidentally use du instead of Sie?


Don't worry: In that case, there was a lot more insulting going on, so using the du was just another puzzle piece showing the disrespect. So: If you don't speak German like a native and behave in a friendly way, you will certainly not be punished, if you address a policeman with du.


By the way: That has also been confirmed in a court ruling. (Amtsgericht Hamburg, Urteil vom 10.03.2008 – 256 Cs 160/08).


You should rather take this as a hint that people feel deeply about being addressed the right way– after all, you won't want to offend someone.


If you use the Sie form, you will also use the family name.

For example: Herr Müller and Frau Meier.


That means:

In case of doubt, use Sie for all adults you don’t know This includes most of the people you may encounter in everyday life, such as doctors, salesmen, craftsmen, or police officers.


At school, children address the teachers with Sie and Herr or Frau. The children, on the other hand, are addressed with du and the first name by the teacher.


At the Gymnasium (~Grammar school), however, teachers will also address the students from the 11th grade onwards with Sie but still with the first name. That way, the students are supposed to grow into their role as responsible adults – after all, they are no longer children.


Die Kinder sagen 'Sie' zur Lehrerin


With neighbors, it can sometimes be a bit tricky. Elderly people are definitely Sie. And in case of doubt, also anyone who might be older than you.


In many companies, colleagues are using du towards each other.

The typical pattern: the job interview is more formal and requires the Sie. On the first day of work, the new colleagues come and introduce themselves with their first names. That also means that you can use the du.


A friend of mine recently got an invitation to a job interview. In that letter the company also talked about their policy of using Du and that they would even use that for the job interview. Well, so you may come across a situation like that and one day it may become a common standard, but for now a company still has to prepare (or should I say warn?) you.




When do I use the „Du“-form“?


If you use the du form, you also use the first name.


The du form shows familiarity and closeness: you use it, for example, in the family and when you talk to friends and acquaintances.


But du is also used for children – regardless of whether you know them or not.


As I just mentioned: in companies, du is increasingly normal today or is even prescribed by the company management – it is considered part of the corporate culture.



In der Familie sagt man 'du'

Whether you use ‘du’ for someone depends on the situation in which you get to know each other.


Parents in kindergarten or school usually address each other by du – if this is where you meet.

If, on the other hand, you meet the father of a classmate on an official occasion for the first time, because he is, for example, a dentist or a salesman, then you are safer to use the Sie. If you mention the kids, he may switch to saying du straight away.


When you are at a party, you will usually also use du towards the friends of the host or other friends.


At the sports club or in the gym you tend to say du as well – but even here you should be careful with elderly people.


In the mountains, people will usually also use du. And even in the pub or in a casual restaurant, you may be addressed with du– then you reply by using du as well.




The„Hamburger Sie“ and the „Münchner Du


There are also mixed forms between the usual ‘Sie plus family name’ and ‘du plus first name‘:


The „Hamburger Sie

You use the Sie and the first name.


Sometimes this form is used by a boss for the employees, while the employee addresses the boss with Sie and the family name.

But that is a bit old-fashioned.


Teachers also use this form with the older students: „Frank, haben Sie Ihre Hausaufgaben gemacht?“

("Frank, have you done your homework?")


The „Münchner Du

... " is also called "cashier‘s Du". You use du plus the family name.

If you go to a department store or a supermarket, you might hear the salespeople addressing each other this way. For example: „Frau Meier, weißt du, was die Bananen kosten?“ ("Ms. Meier, do you know what the bananas cost?")


That way they have a more familiar level than with the formal Sie and at the same time it is clear to the customers what the colleague’s name is. The customers will then say "Mrs. Meier" and "Sie".


What are the rules for kids?

  • The children use du among themselves.

  • They will also use du for the family.

  • Children from primary school - age onwards are expected to use Sie for adults they don’t know well.

  • They say du to the parents of friends.


Kinder duzt man.


Who offers the „Du“?

Fortunately, there are clear rules here:


At work:

The higher rank offers the lower rank the du.

So: the boss offers the employee the du, even if the boss is younger.


In private:

The older person offers the du to the younger one.

And: The lady offers the du to the Gentleman.


If these rules don’t help, for example, because both are about the same age or colleagues, then anyone can offer the du.


That doesn't have to happen formally: If an adult addresses you with du or if he or she introduces himself/ herself with the first name ("Hallo, ich bin Robert"), then you should use du, too.

Woman and man shaking hands, the man saying: "Hallo, ich bin Robert!" - Using Sie or du at the workplace


If you want to offer the ‘du’, you can say:

  • Sollen wir einfach du sagen?

  • Sollen wir uns duzen? – Ich bin Anna.


Good to know

  • A du can only be offered. You should not ask an older person or the boss for it.

  • From the du there is no way back to the Sie! That would be very rude because it means you want to establish a distance.

  • If someone introduces himself with the full name ("Hallo. ich bin Anna Meier!") it does not automatically mean that you can use du.



How to form the 'Sie-form'


If you are just starting to learn German, the ‘Sie’-form will be the easiest form to use:

It is the 3rd person plural and looks almost always the same as the infinitive.

Important exception: Sein (to be)= Sie sind


The form is the same in the singular and plural, for example:


Herr Meier, kommen Sie aus Hamburg? (Mr. Meier, are you from Hamburg?)

Herr und Frau Müller, kennen Sie Düsseldorf? (Mr. and Mrs. Müller, do you know Düsseldorf?)


Sind Sie Frau Meier?

Sind Sie die Eltern von Max?


Sie’ is always capitalized, not only at the beginning of the sentence.



How to form the 'Du-Form'


The du-form has one form for the singular (du) and another one for the plural (ihr):

die 2. Person Singular: du kommst

die 2. Person Plural: ihr kommt


The Singular - du


regular verbs:

2. Person Singular = stem+ -st

Kommen = komm + -st = du kommst


However, there are many irregular verbs, with a change within the stem.


For example:

lesen – du liest

halten – du hältst


„Anna, liest du mir das bitte vor?“



Der Plural - ihr


This is more simple again!


2. Person Plural = stem+ -t


The most important exception here is also the verb to be (sein):

ihr seid


"Max und Anna, seid ihr bald fertig?"

(Max and Anna, will you be finished soon?)



The du form is usually written in lowercase.

But: when addressed directly, for example in a letter or in an email, you can capitalize it.


Example:

Liebe Anna,

kommst Du zu meinem Geburtstag? Natürlich kannst Du auch Max mitbringen – Ihr seid beide herzlich eingeladen!




What shall I do if I’m not sure?


If you’re not sure it’s usually better to use the Sie-form.


Quite often, you can avoid addressing someone directly.


For example :

X Können Sie mir/ Kannst du mir sagen, wie ich zum Bahnhof komme?

(Can you tell me how to get to the station?)

! Entschuldigung, wie komme ich zum Bahnhof?

(Sorry, how do I get to the station?)


X „Nehmen Sie / Nimm den Bus …“

(Take the bus ...)

! „Am besten nimmt man den Bus …“

(It’s best to take the bus ...)


X Statt: Wie geht es Ihnen? / Wie geht es dir?

(How are you doing?)

! Wie geht’s?

(~How are things?)


X Statt: Könnten Sie mir bitte helfen? / Könntest du mir bitte helfen?

(Could you please help me?)

! Ich brauche Hilfe!

(I need help!)


X Danke, dass Sie anrufen! / Danke, dass du anrufst!

(Thank you for calling!)

! Danke für den Anruf!

(Thanks for the call!)



Tip:

Imagine speaking to a customer (whom you address with Sie) about your colleague Nina (Nina Meier).

Then you should use the family name: Frau Meier wird sie anrufen. (Frau Meier will be calling you - not: Nina will be calling you.)

That way the customer knows how to address the colleague.



Conclusion

Quite often it’s not easy to know what the right way of addressing someone is.

A du can not only be friendly, but also condescending, disrespectful, or even offensive!


 

By the way:

this is also the reason why there is only the form "you" in English:

this was originally the Sie form (as opposed to "thou/ thee").

In the 15th century, it was only used for children and spouses ...

and then it disappeared completely.

If you look at it that way, English is much more formal than German!


 

With the possibility of using Sie or du we have two nuances that help us to form relationships with other people.


Especially if you do not feel comfortable with someone or need to complain, the Sie- form can be helpful to keep your distance.

That can be very important if someone is being molested. Using the Sie form is a signal to everyone around that the victim does not know this person - so, for example, that the man dragging away the child is not the father or a man trying to hug a woman is not her boyfriend.


On the other hand, it won’t make the relationship with a particularly nice old lady any less cordial when you say Sie to her.

And if she should decide to offer the du, it will be a sign of great affection.


It all just depends on the nuances!











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