Du and Sie

Friends and Acquaintances (du and Sie)

German Language > DU and SIE

German-speakers tend to be more formal and reserved than people in some other cultures when conducting their personal and business affairs. As in other European languages, German has both a formal and a familiar form of “you.” The formal Sie is used to address strangers, business associates, and acquaintances (Bekannte, as opposed to close friends, Freunde), and for most situations outside the family.


When you’re working in a German office building like this one, you should always use “Sie” – unless you know that the office culture says otherwise.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

For family and relatives, close friends, young children, pets, and God, the familiar du is used (ihr – “you guys” – in the plural). People in the same social group or class, such as students or factory workers, usually address each other as du. White-collar workers and professionals are less likely to do so, but this may depend on a particular company culture.

Although there has been a tendency in recent years towards less formality – generally, the younger the person, the more likely they are to use du instead of Sie – visitors from outside the culture are wise not to adopt this informal approach too quickly. It is better to risk being too formal rather than too familiar. When in doubt, use Sie. Think of Sie as the proper form to use when you might address someone as Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, rather than by their first name. Using a familiar, first-name approach in the wrong situation could be insulting or demeaning, a faux pas that one usually wants to avoid in business and social dealings.

While the Germans and the Swiss (the Austrians less so) are often thought of as cold, and a friendship takes longer to establish, that friendship is often deep and enduring. Casual friendships, American style, are less common. A German-speaking “Freund” or “Freundin” is a true and loyal friend.

Some German-speakers you’ve never met before may address you as “du” right away. If they do, return the favor by also using the familiar you.

In Germanic-culture business situations, you should never use a person’s first name. It is too easy for Americans and other English-speakers to falsely assume that because a German-speaker is being friendly and congenial, it is all right to become more familiar. But such premature familiarity makes most Germans uncomfortable, even though they might not say so. It is advisable to allow your Austrian, German, or Swiss counterpart to decide when or if a less formal relationship is appropriate.

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The title means “German is fun!” Living up to its title, the book makes clever and targeted use of German versions of amusing Hagar® and Peanuts® cartoons to review German grammar and vocabulary.

Perfect Phrases in German for Confident Travel: The No Faux-Pas Phrasebook for the Perfect Trip by Hyde Flippo (paperback or Kindle)
A different kind of phrasebook: Fit in with the locals and avoid embarrassment by using the right phrases. As you plan your trip to Germany, remember to pack this phrasebook! It is the only one that not only has the words and phrases you need to communicate clearly but also explains when and how to use them.

This page is adapted from a chapter in The German Way by Hyde Flippo.

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