YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE TO GERMAN DU VS. SIE

Featured Images Guide to German Du vs Sie

Just a few weeks ago, I (36) instantly felt both flattered and disrespected, when some youngster in his late teens addressed me with Du instead of Sie. I mulled over it for a while and ended up mostly puzzled by my inability to decide which one of those feelings was even valid.

Had he used Sie, I’m sure I still would have been slightly insulted. The poor kid simply couldn’t win.

Luckily, in many situations, it’s a lot easier to pick the correct pronoun. Read on, to learn how.

Also make sure to check out my post on Six Greetings That Are Essential To Know If You’re Living In Germany to learn even more about German courtesy.

ADULTS TALKING TO KIDS

In formal settings, address kids and teens with Du until they reach 16.

However, if your son’s best bro, whom you’ve basically been co-raising for the past ten years hits that age, don’t be an odd duck – stick with Du.

If you’re looking to make things achingly awkward for everyone, utter Sie the first time your daughter introduces her 16-year-old boyfriend to you. It’ll be the most stilted meeting you’ve ever had to plod through. It’s the German version of casually cleaning your shotgun while hosting him.

KIDS TALKING TO ADULTS

Kids around six years and up are expected to use Sie when addressing adults, except with family and friends. Starting no later than elementary school, they’ll use it with their teachers and call them Frau or Herr *Insertlastname*.

In most situations, if an adult introduces themselves with their first name, it’s cool for kids (or adults) to use Du, but teach your little ones to stay on the safe side and always use Sie with strangers.

TEACHERS TALKING TO STUDENTS

Teachers are required to use Sie when addressing their students in tenth grade and up – at least in Bavaria, where I used to teach.

This is awkward for everyone involved and many educators will ask their teens whether they’re still okay with Du, which is usually the case. In fact, in my experience, students are often relieved, as this gives them a few more years of being able to act like a toddler, without every sentence directed at them reminding them that they’re too mature to, say, stick chalk up their nose.

For German speakers: “Leon, stecken Sie sich bitte nicht die Kreide in die Nase?“ is slightly more toe-curling than “Leon, tu‘ die Kreide raus!

Du vs Sie at school

When I got to tenth grade at 16 years old, some of my teachers started addressing me with Sie – even ones I had known for five years already. It was the beginning of an intensely cringe-worthy four-year phase of feeling like an imposter while strangers increasingly talked to me like the adult, I sensed I wasn’t.

ADULTS TALKING TO STRANGERS

Use Sie when addressing a stranger. Pretty straightforward, right?

But wait: In informal settings, you needn’t use Sie when the other person is the same age as you or younger. But you could. It might make things awkward. Or not. This is one of the thorniest situations you may run into. Simply go for one or the other and then hope for the best. Good luck!

Many foreigners use Sie to be extra polite, however, it can seem odd in some settings, like when you’re hitting on someone at a bar. Although, you never know. You might make a killing, with the “hit-ee” (yes, I know this is not a word – but it should be!) finding it endearing.

YOUR STATUS COUNTS

Always use Sie by default.

If you’re higher in status (socially or professionally), you may offer using Du.

I used to teach at a school where all my colleagues said Du to each other. I was apprehensive to address the principal that way at first, but ended up loving the work environment this brought to pass. It made me feel like being part of a tight-knit family.

WE’RE ALL EQUAL

When playing a hobby, it’s common for everyone to address each other with Du – no matter their age or status. But tread carefully here: some people may still not like being talked to that way. So, if they use Sie when chatting with you, make the switch.

Du comes with more familiarity. It enables interactions that aren’t always fitting in other situations – especially in Germany, where professionals oftentimes maintain highly distanced relationships at work.

So, if you’re a student at the same dojo as your French teacher, you’ll be expected to switch back to Sie at school, even if you’ve challenged them to get hammered and warble We Will Rock You, flaunting a purple wig by the campfire during the annual Karate camping trip.

Du vs Sie Hobby

COMPANY POLICY

Some firms – particularly young startups – use Du with all coworkers as part of their policy, while certain businesses, Ikea for example, even use it with their customers, to create a friendlier and more youthful atmosphere.

OFFER TO SAY DU

When using Sie with each other, the older or (socially/professionally) superior person can offer to say Du at any time.

Know, that this is an honor. Declining it is considered disgracious and can weigh down the relationship going forward.

BRÜDERSCHAFT TRINKEN

In German movies, after offering to use Du, people will sometimes Brüderschaft trinken/drink to brotherhood.

While holding a beverage, they reach through the crook of each other’s arm to take a sip, peck each other on the cheeks, and oftentimes proceed to have their schmaltzy first smooch.

Don’t fret – you’re not expected to canoodle with your boss after they offer to say Du. In fact, I’ve never seen Brüderschaft trinken in real life.

It’s probably a product of the German Association of Fed-Up Screenwriters who weren’t able to cook up other realistic ways of getting their protagonists to kiss since twirling through a fountain would be unrealistic in this country. Viewers would be like “Nein! Get out of there, it’s against the rules! Sie scoundrel!” before disgustedly flouncing out of the theater.

IF IN DOUBT

Rule of thumb: Never hurl Du at anyone who uses Sie with you.

If you’re unsure, avoid directly addressing people until you hear what they say to you – then copy them.

Be aware though: they might be pursuing the same strategy. Unravel this presto, since eventually, you’ll come to the point at which you’re too far into the relationship to ever recover from assigning the wrong direct pronoun to them.

Germans are masters at dodging addressing others. We grow up vegging out at our friends’ houses each day – even going on vacation with them – without ever directly speaking to their parents, out of fear of insulting them by using Du, but at the same time knowing that Sie would be awkward.

So, we can keep this up for years, decades, or even a lifetime! You’ll get there, too.

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2 Responses

  1. KL says:

    I found your website on Facebook. These are really fun and enlightening articles you’ve written.. I really enjoy reading them. Keep up the great work!

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