You Can Du Me: The Du/Sie Question

The question of du or Sie, informal versus formal “you,” is a perennial one for expats in a place like Germany. Many European languages make a linguistic distinction based on interpersonal relationships. These distinctions have fallen out of use in modern English.

Lucky for those learning English. But expats learning the German language and culture frequently struggle with the question of informal versus the formal. When you are in the midst of a strange culture, you are constantly out of your safety zone. Any faux pas, no matter how slight, becomes a major drama in your own mind. Getting du/Sie wrong can lead to self-doubt and undermining yourself as you try to acclimate in a land of strangers who never quite act the way you think they should.

If there is any consolation I can give, it is this: we expats are not alone. We tend to think that our German hosts have this all figured out and the whole thing is a breeze. The fact is that the native Germans struggle with this, too. They respond by using their own personal rules, which mostly agree with each other, and stick to them unless corrected. And Germans are not afraid to correct you… but we’ll get to that in another post.

I give technical English workshops in Germany. I picked up some excellent guidelines from some clients which I’ll share here. No charge to you.

  1. If both people are wearing street clothes, go informal.
  2. If both people are in an informal setting (chatting in a grocery store, or in the park) go informal.
  3. If one person is wearing a uniform in the place of employment (restaurant, café, department store, city hall) go formal.
  4. If there is more than 20 years difference between the people, go formal.
  5. In a work environment if both people are under 40 and wearing casual clothes go informal, otherwise go formal in the work environment.

Again, these are only guidelines. Most likely they cover only about 60 percent of the situations accurately because this all boils down to personal preference, comfort levels and whatever is in the mind of the other person as well as yourself. Short of being psychic there is no way to always to get it right.

Getting it wrong is really no big deal. If you go formal or informal and the other person would like you to change, they will tell you.

Probably because we expats are often a little insecure we overreact to this and become horribly embarrassed. The fact is that unless you constantly make the same mistake with the same person they’ll forget about it ten minutes later. And the fact that you corrected yourself at their request can actually win you brownie points.

Just like with the language in general, don’t try to avoid the situation. Just use whatever you think is appropriate and be open to the learning experience. You’ll be better off and you’ll make a better impression.

More information on Du and Sie.