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.”
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?