One of the first thing you learn in your German lessons is that the English ‘you’ can be the formal ‘Sie’ (for singular and plural) and the informal ‘du’ (or ‘ihr’ for plural). You’ve learned to ask ‘Wie heißen Sie?’ if you need to ask somebody’s name formally or ‘Wie heißt du?’ if you ask informally.
BUT WHEN do you use du or Sie?
Two very basic rules:
- When talking to adults you don’t know and if in doubt – use Sie
- When talking to little children – use du (or ihr)
Let’s go into more detail:
If you are going to Germany for a holiday or business trip and don’t know anybody, you address every adult with Sie. You don’t know them and before you put your foot in it you stick to the formal you. That applies especially if you meet prospective clients, employers or employees. Addressing somebody as ‘first name & du’ could be the end of that desired job or deal.
If you talk to children, then don’t use ‘Sie’, you can be informal and use ‘du’ (to one child) or ‘ihr’ (to a group of children).
The same applies to animals, but I doubt you’d want to talk to animals in German while on a short stay …. and if you get it wrong, I’ll doubt they’d mind ☺
You also use the informal you when talking to family members. As a tourist in Germany you most likely have no family members there, but what do you do if you have a German partner? Obviously you use ‘du’ when talking to them but when you meet your partner’s parents for the first time you use the formal ‘Sie’ and you stick with it until they suggest to use ‘du’.
If you are moving to Germany to study, you’ll find that amongst students ‘du’ is the norm. Lecturers may also want to be addressed by their first name and ‘du’, but until you know that address them with their surname and ‘Sie’.
Things are changing in Germany and more and more people do use first names and ‘du’, others make compromises and use surname and ‘du’. I have even heard people being addressed with first name but ‘Sie’. Some businesses insist on everybody being on familiar terms, others don’t.
So how do you make sense of it?
If in doubt, use ‘Sie’!
The worst that can happen if you use ‘Sie’ when the person would rather be addressed as ‘du’, is that they tell you to use ‘du’.
The worst that can happen if you use ‘du’ when the person would rather be addressed as ‘Sie’, could be embarrassment at least and a possible job or deal loss.
So, don’t risk it. Stick to ‘Sie’ until told otherwise, or until you know the person long and well enough to suggest being informal.
Etiquette wise, in business it’s the higher rank that can and might suggest to use ‘du’.
Privately it’s the older person.
The following video is a bit of fun, but will tell you the rules again:
To recap: if you’re in Germany for only a short time, and if in doubt, use Sie.
It is far better to be formal and for the German then to tell you to be less formal, than to address the other person with their first name when the they are used to be called Mr or Mrs. It could be the difference between getting that job or contract or not!
So, how do you address me, you little fledgelings? You are, of course, allowed to address me with Angelika and du ☺