Du and Sie

Du oder Sie? For many of you, who come to Germany, this concept of duzen (using informal du) and siezen (using formal Sie) can be new. The other day, we had a discussion about die Anrede at school. Many of the students in our group come from China, Iran, Armenia, Spain, and so on. They can draw a parallel between the usage of these pronouns in German and their mother tongue. Basically, you shall use Sie when:

1.    You are in a formal situation (business meeting, doctor’s office, post office… as well as a supermarket and a restaurant. The last two are not necessarily the formal situations, but the situations in which you do not fraternize with the staff).

2.    You are talking to a stranger/acquaintance

3.    Your interlocutor is older than you

In other informal situations you use du (within a family or with friends).

At some working places you can hear people duzen each other. It all depends on a company policy and type of work. In the beginning, as a foreigner and a new employee use Sie at work. If the atmosphere in your company is relaxed and the employees use du, you shall be told about that by someone who introduces you to your working place. To be on the safe side, it is advisable to wait until a German native speaker suggests you to use du instead of Sie (if situation allows it to happen). With some time, your neighbors or parents of your child’s friend may suggest using du, for example.

From the very beginning, our teacher at a language school said that we can call her either Frau Schmidt or Anna (for instance). So, if I call her Anna, I shall use du. If I go for Frau Schmidt, I shall use Sie. The other teacher felt a bit different about the interaction with students and suggested we always say du to her and call her Bettina (just an example). Anna Schmidt calls a student Sie, Bettina calls a student du. As you can see, it is more about the inner feeling of a person. As some Germans say, sometimes they use their Bauchgefühl to decide if they shall duzen or siezen.

Some say, that people between 30 and 40 years old have problems with someone younger addresses them as Sie. They do not see it as a form of respect, but as if someone points out at their age. Nobody wants to feel old, right?

The more one thinks of it, the more complicated the topic can get. We better keep it simple.

Many of the students I study with, find it frustrating that currently both of our new teachers ask us to duzen them. We see no problem with that, but on the other hand, we wish to say Sie. The reason for that is: We are too comfortable with using du on a daily basis. Unconsciously, we tend to say du to strangers. For those of us who have just a little interaction in German outside of the classroom this lack of practice saying Sie has some consequences.

Many of us said to the teacher, we wouldn’t mind saying Sie to her to sound polite and show our respect. Of course, we sound polite using du, because that’s how the teacher wants it to be, given the fact that we study in a friendly and cozy environment.

As I mentioned, saying du all the time at school made us accidentally duzen strangers. A friend of mine gave his seat on a bus to an old lady saying ‘Du kannst hier sitzen’.

Sometimes, I am happy that we have an accent, so people can see we do not really mean to duzen them. Another friend of mine said du to a shop assistant and to a waiter. I did the same mistake combining du und Sie in one sentence when talking to a neighbor. Practice makes perfect indeed! Knowledge you get from a school is never enough. Life is our teacher too.

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