Skip to Content

One of the things that make it hard to be German is that we’re more formal than we ourselves feel comfortable with. This is an endless source of awkwardness in otherwise perfectly harmless, albeit social, situations. The single worst aspect of this are the challenges imposed on German speakers by the words “Du” and “Sie.”

/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/siezen_597740.jpg

Source: http://www.cyclone-textil.de/Darf-ich-sie-siezen-duzen-altern-oder-diggern_detail_1148.html

What, what, what?

“Du” and “Sie” both translate to “You.” Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl is alleged to have famously said to an English-speaking conversation partner: “You can say you to me!”

“Du” is the informal personal pronoun and “Sie” is the formal one.  Many languages have this distinction, and linguists call it the “T-V distinction” from the Latin pronouns “tu” and “vos.” English used to have this distinction, but the informal “thou” has mostly vanished (it survives as “tha” in some dialects).

There’s a great Wikipedia article and it even has a section on the use of “Du” and “Sie” in German,  but I wouldn’t fully subscribe to everything in the article – not because it’s wrong, but because the it makes the rules for when to use “Du” and when to use “Sie” appear simpler and easier than they are.

Generally, you use the formal “Sie” to address someone when:

  • they are higher-ranking
  • they are older
  • you are a child addressing an adult
  • they are a lady and you are trying to act like a gentleman
  • you don’t know them well

You use the informal “Du” when:

  • you’re friends, friends of friends, or family
  • you work in a company where it is a corporate policy to address coworkers with “Du” (such as SAP)
  • there has been a formal agreement to move on from “Sie” to “Du” between you and the other person
  • in certain clubs, sports teams, etc., where there is a written or unwritten rule that everybody uses the “Du” form
  • in certain social settings where it would be totally awkward and mark you as hopelessly socially inept to use the “Sie” form, especially in places where young people are having fun

It gets worse

There are different ways to move on from “Sie” to “Du” in a relationship:

  • The traditional way is that after a while, which can be measured in days or decades (I’m being serious), the older or higher-ranking person offers to progress to “Du” by saying: “I am <first name>,” it is accepted, and you shake hands and ideally drink a beer over it.
  • A risky way is to just start using the “Du” without any formal declaration, warning, or invitation, and hope that it is reciprocrated. This can result in a horrible loss of face if the other person keeps using the “Sie” form or even explicitly asks to stay on “Sie” terms. You’re socially dead if that happens to you. Still, it is done quite frequently in informal circles lately.
  • Some people test the waters by starting to address a group of people with which they are on “Sie” terms with the plural form of “Du” (“Ihr”) before using the “Du” on the individuals. This can be used as a warning and to signal the intention to eventually move on to the “Du.” The response can be either extra frequent use of “Sie” to signal that you don’t want the “Du,” or to avoid using “Du” and “Sie” altogether to indicate that you’re moving on from clear “Sie” land to a kind of no-man’s-land of neither “Sie” nor “You,” from where it could go anywhere if the mood is right.

One reason why this is so awkward is that to most German speakers, being addressed as “Du” from the wrong person can feel very uncomfortable, and you may feel you have to reject it.

But the act of rejecting an inappropriate “Du” is generally perceived as a horrible slap in the face and humiliation, and feels awkward to both the slapper and the slappee.

On the other hand, people are increasingly experiencing it as awkward and overly distanced to be on “Sie” terms with someone they feel they should be on more informal terms with, such as a colleague, a business associate, a good customer, a friendly neighbor. You don’t want to be perceived as giving these people the cold shoulder, but with society becoming more and more informal, using “Sie” is increasingly perceived as doing exactly that.

A real-life situation

For me and many German speakers with whom I have discussed it, a recurring awkward moment is the following:

You’re discussing SAP stuff in an international group with SAP employees and non-employees. You’re speaking English, everybody is on first-name terms. When somebody leaves the conversation and only native German speakers are left, the group switches to German. But how do you address people – whom do you address as “Sie” and whom do you address as “Du”?

  • SAP employees address other SAP employees as “Du” – that’s easy
  • Anybody else is per default on “Sie” terms.
  • Using “Sie” at this point this is very difficult because you’ve been using first names, which in German is tied to “Du.” If you go to “Sie,” you also have to go from “Wolfgang” or “Thorsten” to “Herr Franz” or even “Herr Dr. Weiss” if you don’t want to be rude with respect to another rule concerning academic titles. This feels like a twenty degrees drop in temperature to everyone involved.
  • Using “Du” prematurely, on the other hand, can cause the aforementioned loss of face and awkwardness.
  • In order to avoid this, what frequently happens is that everybody clams up and the conversation is over, because it has turned into a social mine field, and people want to get away from it.

The list of complications doesn’t end here. I frequently forget if I’m on “Sie” or “Du” terms with someone. Also,I often have difficulties recognizing people by face, so I don’t always know if the person whose hand I’m shaking is someone with whom I’m on “Du” or “Sie” terms – dangerous, dangerous social territory, crocodile-infested waters!

Why does it have to be so difficult? Well, because of cultural changes in the workplace and in the country in general, the rules for “Sie” and “Du” have become so unclear that nobody knows what to do anyone. At the same time, the penalty for violating these (now unclear) rules hasn’t disappeared.

For example, who is the higher-ranking person in a situation where an older senior manager from a vendor meets a young, relatively junior employee from a customer? Does being a customer trump other sources of seniority? What about gender? Traditionally, men try to be extra polite and treat women as superiors in the context of “Sie” and “Du”, meaning it is the woman who has the right to suggest the “Du.” But isn’t that sexist today, and isn’t the woman entitled to a treatment at eye level in the workplace, where gender matters as little as possible?

What to do?

Personally, I wish I could spend my brain cycles on more worthwhile topics than how to avoid a horrible humiliation because of a transgression of a totally unclear rule concerning an insignificant social formality.

Therefore, I hereby declare: “You can youz me.” When we meet, let’s try to keep this as simple as possible. All things combined, even though I do like to keep my reservations, the cost of the “Sie” – “Du” awkwardness is just too high in many situations, and to make things easier, I much prefer “Du” over “Sie,” and especially in all cases when

  • we’re both SAP Community members and engage at DSAG, ASUG, VNSG, SAP Inside Tracks, or in other community-powered circles
  • we’re fellow geeks, sharing a strong interest in any area (could be development and architecture, food and drink, psychology, etc.)
  • we’re planning to work together
  • 1 != 2

Am I the only person who finds this difficult and unnecessarily complicated? Would you share your comments, remarks, observations?

To report this post you need to login first.

46 Comments

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.

  1. Henricus Bouten

    @Thorsten, Du hast völlig recht! And because of the @Thorsten I’m already at first-name basis so “Du” would be best. And for the awkwardness when there are only German speaking persons left in the meeting … just make sure the last non-German isn’t allowed to leave the room  πŸ˜‰

    (0) 
  2. Dirk Wittenberg

    Some German companies are having an even more weird policy using “Du” together with the last name: “Du Herr ( Mr. ) Meyer” or “Sie” with the first name “Tom, könnten Sie bitte …” ( Tom, could you please )”.

    Luckily I never got in touch with one of these πŸ˜‰

    (0) 
  3. Tom Cenens

    Hi Thorsten

    Interesting read, thanks for sharing.

    Similar rules exist in both Dutch and French but French speaking people are more sensitive to it (my perspective here, not a general rule). Because I’m mostly using “Du” – “jij” in Dutch, I tend to ask permission when speaking French to use “tu” because it’s very hard to make the switch back and forth, I tend to forget to use “Sie” – “vous”. By asking permission, I try to get around the problem of accidently using the wrong one.

    Best regards

    Tom

    (0) 
    1. Alexandre N.

      Hello Tom,

      I confirm, using “tu” out of the blue to address someone you barely know is almost an insult πŸ™‚ , when one feel offended about it, we can always reply back “We have not raised pigs together” 😏 …

      That being said, the reality is that we come relatively quickly on “tu” terms…. 

      (0) 
      1. Jelena Perfiljeva

        It’s the same in Russian but one might say “we have not drunk vodka together!”. Although, come to think of it, if you start drinking like Russians you might not even remember who was there, much less whether you switched to less formal greeting… But you can see that process of “informalization” here is much shorter than raising pigs together. πŸ™‚

        (0) 
        1. Matt Fraser

          But if you are drinking vodka together in Russia, do you even uncap the bottle? Or just knock the top off, since after all you will not be recapping it? πŸ˜‰

          (0) 
  4. Hermano Claro

    Thorsten,

    I dare say that you’re not alone on thinking this is unnecessarily complicated.

    In Brazilian Portuguese there’s something like this complication you described, in the following link you can get an idea: Portuguese personal pronouns – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    There’s the “você” and “tu”, which the first is semi-formal or formal and the second is informal. The problem is that it’s kind of regional, some places “tu” is used frequently and “você” almost isn’t used, and places that’s the opposite, and there’s special words for formality like the “senhor(a)” which can be used for high-rank person or older person or, also, a married person, and this goes on. Not that the rule is regional, it’s for the entire language, but some places just doesn’t use one of the two frequently.

    One thing that I feel like being very different is how a person feels when the other asks you to be more formal. I don’t think the situation get’s awkward when we (we as being me and people I know) are corrected about the formality to use, but usually I don’t see a lot of people correcting others about it. There are some cases where a person doesn’t want to be addressed as “senhor(a)” because they feel like being too old.

    (0) 
  5. Mark Teichmann

    From what I have learned as a child on my visits to Denmark (hopefully this is correct) danish people say ‘du’ to people they like and ‘Sie’ to people they do not like.

    Maybe I simplified this a bit in my imagination but this is really easy to follow πŸ˜‰

    (0) 
  6. Susan Keohan

    Sehr geehrter Herr Franz, ich kann mir nicht vorstellen, eine Situation, wo Sie nicht höheren Rang als ich, aber auf der anderen Seite, ich habe das Alter auf Sie. Deshalb können wir vereinbaren, einander als “duanzusprechen, wenn Sie diese Anordnung angenehm finden.

    (0) 
  7. Lukas Weigelt

    Mr.Thorstenster, thine blog art an epitome of wisdom and I like it, verily.

    Or maybe I should put it like this:

    Yo Thorsten, Digger, dein Blog ist voll der konkrete Bringer, ey. Peace!

    Am I the only person who finds this difficult and unnecessarily complicated? Would you share your comments, remarks, observations?

    No, you’re not. I’m confronted with this every day I’m writing mails to a “wider audience” with co-workers on the same hierachy-level as me, superiors I am “per Du” and superiors I am “per Sie”; plus, the whole Gendering Hype in Germany makes it even more ridiculous (don’t wanna expand on that right now or I might talk myself into rage).

    :-/

    Cheers, Lukas

    (0) 
  8. Gretchen Lindquist

    Thorsten,

    Yes, what Sue said, ditto πŸ™‚

    Thank you for sharing your perspective as a native German speaker. I must confess that I found myself in that awkward position some months ago when chatting online in French with an SCN colleague and feared giving offense by being overly familiar, so I used the formal Vous. I was so relieved when the native French speaker suggested that we were well enough acquainted to “tutoyer.” Your suggestions are quite sensible. SAP Community members should be Du, tu, jij, etc.

    Gretchen

    (0) 
  9. JΓΌrgen L

    Just do not take your German from the movie synchronization, man and wife are still using Sie after they had spend a night together.  That’s unrealistic

    (0) 
  10. Stephen Johannes

    Actually we do have informal of “you” in American english that are used in personal settings only.  Some versions tend to be “man/dude/brother/sister/guy/gal” but used to get attention of other individuals.  The use of a nickname is also used in place of a more formal you.  However this is in spoken English vs written which differs greatly from spoken conversations.

    (0) 
  11. Suhas Saha

    If a native German speaker has a problem deciding whether to use “Du” or “Sie”, then imagine how much confused a person trying to learn German is πŸ˜•

    I play it safe and call everyone Herr/Frau XYZ, if (s)he doesn’t look younger to me. Most of the times they ask me to use their first names πŸ™‚ I have a feeling too that people feel ackward being addressed as “Sie” or “Herr”.

    Anyway, that is the least of my problems right now. German grammar is making me go crazy!

    (0) 
    1. Steffi Warnecke

      I have a feeling too that people feel ackward being addressed as “Sie” or “Herr”.

      Well, I definitly feel awkward, when someone addresses me as “Herr”.  πŸ˜€

      Until now I have surfed the du-Sie-waves pretty well. The unwritten rules of old still apply for me, so I just stood by those and was fine.

      I have some people (colleagues) where I change from du to Sie to du and they do, too (they started this). We’re in a grey area, because we haven’t officially established the du yet. *g* When in doubt, I just go Sie.

      Great blog, Thorsten! And I love the feedback from the other languages. It kind of feels good to learn, that other languages have that kind of chaos, too. πŸ˜€

      The chart for French looks like it could be directly translated for du-Sie.

      (0) 
  12. Matt Fraser

    Ha, I definitely had this problem the first time I went to France with my wife to meet her family. Even now, I’m never entirely comfortable knowing whether to use “tu” or “vous.” Although we don’t speak French at home, there are a few phrases we use all the time, and of course I use “tu” with my wife, so that tends to fall out of my mouth first when (attempting) speaking French to others, and then I realize my possible mistake, get uncomfortable, and they just smile at me like they would a child.

    (0) 
    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Oh yes, France! When I was a kid, in Germany, there were some friends of my parents’ whom I was supposed to siez. But that was nothing against what I experienced as an exchange student in France, where it was not uncommon that people would vousvoyer their own grand-père. I think even the vousvoyer of their own parents went on much longer in France than it did in Germany. The French seem to like it a bit more formel.

      (0) 
  13. Christopher Solomon

    When I see you, I just say “Ahhh my good old friend, Mr. Thorsten! How have you been? Care for a fine whiskey?”….then I have all my bases covered on “proper respect” and if not, the free whiskey makes up for it.. haha πŸ˜›

    (0) 
    1. Otto Gold

      I am confused here. There are options for family members and for princes and princesses, but there is no shortcut like If a strike is going on, then everyone is “hey, you, get me the brick”…

      (0) 
    2. Jelena Perfiljeva

      If you’re a child and talking to a child who is a prince (or something) then it should go to “vous” as well, non? Unless “Le Google” exception applies. πŸ™‚

      @Matt – what happens at Woodtsock stays at Woodstock, I guess. πŸ™‚

      (0) 
        1. Thorsten Franz Post author

          Considering the substances people were taking, I bet there are a large number of people who still wonder if they were actually there or if it’s just a figment of their imagination.

          Some didn’t inhale – other’s didn’t EXhale.

          (0) 
  14. Paul Bakker

    It’s confusing for native speakers but even worse for foreigners…

    My mother tongue is English, so I had a few problems grasping the ‘Jij – U’ distinction in Dutch. At high schooI I simply called all the teachers ‘jij’, which lead to some seriously ruffled feathers (on the older males) and a near expulsion.

    A bizarre variation on this theme is in Japanese, where you must refer to yourself (I, me) differently depending on your status. So you say ‘watashi’ to be polite, ‘boku’ in an informal setting, ‘ore’ if you are a violent gangster, or ‘chin’ if you are the emperor! 😏

    (0) 
  15. Jelena Perfiljeva

    There is the same concept in Russian language (Ρ‚Ρ‹ / Π²Ρ‹) that becomes the constant source of awkwardness between the newly acquired friends as you grow older. On one hand, since we’re the same age and have been introduced (either by Internet or another friend), we can use the informal “Ρ‚Ρ‹”, but somehow I find myself using different forms with different people not based on any specific criteria. Maybe it’s sort of a “chemistry”, but it just feels more appropriate with some people than other.

    I guess the solution is for everyone just switch to English and then “ze drem vil finali kum tru“. πŸ™‚

    (0) 
    1. JΓΌrgen L

      Finally – I was searching for this spelling reform since end of last century. We had this on the wall in our office when I worked in the US, but instead of DB and Chrysler it was said that SAP has announced this spelling reform

      Thanks for this link πŸ™‚

      (0) 
    2. Matt Fraser

      So wasn’t this what Esperanto was supposed to solve? Where did that end up? Well, I guess it’s still out there, but didn’t exactly take over the world. Ze drem did not kum tru.

      (0) 
  16. Sven Ringling

    WIth you 100%.

    Living in Britain, I’ve been known to have fallen into the trap of inappropriate Du-ing or first-name-ing, when back on my former home turf – now sometimes not so home any more (the other element of reverse culture shock is the realisation that German drivers are extremely aggressive against pedestrians compared to London drivers, a realisation that usually comes with a near death experience).

    It happened 3 times already, but luckily my strategy of turning the stumble into a fully blown attack has worked so far, when the other side tried to subtly push back to “Sie”. “Oh, I’m ever so sorry. I’m still in English mode. This very relaxed artitude they have on that island seems to be corrupting my manners and now I really have to concentrate to not become too informal in German. Of course we are on”Sie”.”

    FUnnily enough nobody wants to look like a stiff Prussian civil servant compared to the Brits and they are suddenly ok with first names πŸ™‚

    I can particularly relate to the situation, where I have a conversation in English with a group including Germans, I’m on Sie terms with. There are so many different awkward scenarios you can get into and there’s no elegant solution (unlike the Japanese, we cannot revert to ritual suicide using an ancient sword as a socially accepted way out – this would upset participants in the meeting almost as much as inappropriate use of Du or Sie)

    Where is EU regulation when, once in your life time, you really need it???!!! They should standardise the whole bloody mess making it all first name and Du, tu, etc. If they do that, I will live hapoily thereafter and eat theor standardised pickled gherkins without complaining.

    (0) 
    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      ROTFL, your comment made my day, Sven. You are so right, we have every right to be jealous of the Japanese for their ability to revert to ritual suicide in awkward social situations!!!

      (0) 
  17. JΓΌrgen L

    Just read that Mark Twain had already trouble with the Sie:

    from Twain’s 1880 book A Tramp Abroad:

    sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

    (0) 
      1. Matt Fraser

        There is no question he was a master of language, or at least of the English language. I’ve always loved his essays, perhaps more than his more well-known fiction.

        (0) 
      2. Stephen Johannes

        +100 on Mark Twain.  Then again I live in the part of the world near where he grew up/worked in(before his writings) and it’s not uncommon to find buildings/higways/bridges named after him.

        (0) 
  18. Anil Aleti

    Good, bien. bon article. Oh I forget, what do they say in German for the good stuff? :-)…this is what happens when you are too formal, I guess.

    The charm factor reduces and the magnetism to the outside world is lesser. No doubt, the Germans are known for their machines and now for the software too (There are a lot in non-ERP space too, esp in auto sector). I think, since they do speak better English than many other European countries, they have a great advantage already to make cultural adjustments.

    A few years back, I saw a 90s vintage award winning German movie – I am afraid it was certainly not so good as the English (UK) and French ones. Maybe, a different cultural shift could be possible by some new books/movies etc.

    Jumping to conclusion without further ado, I would like to say IMHO that it is indeed better for the German corporate world in general and SAP employees in particular (IT) to be less formal – always first name; always “Du”. The banking sector maybe different with more formal needs, but IT is however driven with a different agenda.

    (0) 
    1. Steffi Warnecke

      It’s not so easy to throw away your way of doing things just because it seems easier for the outside world. πŸ˜‰

      My experience shows that in IT you get pretty fast to first name terms and the “du”, at least with the colleagues on your team. And my experience also shows that calling someone by his/her last name and “Sie” doesn’t mean you are not close. I can banter and joke just as well with someone that I don’t “duz”. ^^ It’s not the formal or informal, that counts for me, but how well I connect with somebody and for that I don’t need the “du”. Some of my “partners in crime” I “Siezt” for years and after we changed to first name terms, nothing really changed in our behaviour to eachother.

      So don’t get too stuck on the “this is formal, that is not”. When you expect everybody in a company to go by first names, it’s kind of formal, too, in my opinion. πŸ™‚

      (0) 

Leave a Reply