Guten Tag, Frau Schmidt

In the office the other day my colleague was in a quandary. “But I don’t know whether to write ‘Du’ or ‘Sie’”, she said, brow furrowed, “I’ll have to text my friend and find out what she says to her.” The “Du” / “Sie” under discussion was a cleaner, recommended by a friend. My colleague had the mobile phone number but no knowledge of the cleaner’s age or general attitude to linguistic formality. For non-native speakers and students of German, the “Du” or “Sie” dilemma is all too familiar, but here was a born-and-bred German stumbling through the same maze of uncertainty.

The assumption that Germans just know this sort of detail – imbibed through years of interacting with aged relatives over Kaffee und Kuchen – no longer holds true. Customs have changed: some Germans and some parts of Germany have become less formal, it seems. The challenge now lies in knowing which ones. My colleague did not want to offend an older lady with the informal “Du”, nor to come across as a fusty stickler for tradition with a bright young thing. “If only I could write to her in English,” she bemoaned, “A simple ‘you’ would be so much easier.”

In the olden days – a mere fifteen years ago would suffice – the answer would have been clear to all Germans. “Sie” for anyone older, a stranger, or a distant acquaintance; “Du” for close friends and family. Neighbours and colleagues would fall into two camps. Those you had an intimate friendship with who had offered you the “Du”, and a brief “Sie“, plus head-nod on the stairs for anyone else. 

Today, all of our neighbours under the age of sixty are “Du” to us. In more relaxed workplaces all colleagues, no matter their rank, are on first-name and “Du” terms. In Berlin’s trendy shops and cafes, it’s only about “Du”. But before you marvel at how progressive Germany has become, be warned: try a friendly “Du” in the traditional bakery or Galleria Kaufhof – eyebrows will be raised! Tellingly, a friend who works as a press secretary for a CSU member of parliament exclusively addresses colleagues with “Sie” and “Frau / Herr”, whilst her colleague down the hall working for a SPD member only ever says “du”. “Du” and “Sie” is political too.

Another sign of the shift is how children address the parents of their friends. My husband was reflecting that when he was a child, the parents of even his closest friends were always “Frau / Herr So-and-So” to him, right through to early adulthood. Being offered the “Du” and first names by one slightly hippy friend of his parents was a huge source of embarrassment to his sixteen-year-old self, forcing him to go out of his way to avoid addressing the friend at all. Of course, our children in relaxed Prenzlauerberg only use first names and “Du” for their friends’ parents – not something which is likely to change as they get older either.  At our children’s school, another line is drawn. The children say “Sie” and “Frau / Herr” to their teachers but “Du” and first names to the classroom assistants and youth workers who look after them in Hort (an after school club).

This is a language in flux – and the beauty of it allows for the most wonderful jokes. Adults, touched by nostalgia for earlier, simpler, more formal times, call each other “Frau Y” in the office, just for fun. In fact, my colleagues (in a very modern Berlin digital business) refer to each other more as “Herr X” than they do by their first names, but always with a deliberate twinkle in their eye – not dissimilar to the way they greet each other with “Mahlzeit” any time between 11.30am and 2pm, as I wrote about here

And the brilliant irony: the recommended cleaner turned out to be a twenty-something American.