Du VS Sie? How to address people in German!
Guten Morgen, Frau Fischer! Haben Sie gut geschlafen?
In Germany, we use different second-person personal pronouns in order to not offend the person we’re talking to.
Ich bin Spring German Lehrerin Brunhild und heute lernen wir den Unterschied zwischen Du und Sie.
(I’m Spring German teacher Brunhild and today we’ll learn the difference between the formal you and the informal you.)
Guten Tag. Sie sind verbunden mit der Vodafone Mailbox von…
Sie is the formal second person personal pronoun which you use to address casual acquaintances, business associates, strangers, anyone you don’t know that well personally. It’s necessary to lay a foundation of basic respect.
Guten Abend, Frau Fischer. Möchten Sie ein Stück Schokolade?
(Good evening, Miss Fischer. Would you like a piece of chocolate?)
(Oh! Thank you!)
Bitteschön. Sie sind immerhin Stammgast hier!
(With pleasure. After all, you are a regular!)
Notice how the receptionist always says Sie? Möchten SIE ein Stück Schokolade? SIE sind immerhin Stammgast hier! (Would you like a piece of chocolate? After all, you are a regular!) That’s because the receptionist doesn’t personally know Mrs Fischer. Sure, she may be a regular at the hotel and they are friendly toward one another, but they’re not friends. They meet in a working context.
If they were friends, the conversation would look like this:
Hey Monika. Möchtest du ein Stück Schokolade?
(Hey Monika. Would you like a piece of chocolate?)
Klaro. Du bist immerhin Stammgast hier!
(Of course. After all, you are a regular.)
People who know each other usually know that they respect each other, so there is no need to “mark” it with formal pronouns. If you are close to each other, you can just be yourselves and say Du (informal you).
Du (you informal) is for people you’re close with, such as your boyfriend / girlfriend, your friends, your roomies…
Was machst du morgen? Kann ich dein Auto leihen?
(What are you doing tomorrow? Can I borrow your car?)
Du weisst, dass du gar nicht fragen musst, Mausi!
(You know that you don’t need to ask, sweetheart!)
Du (informal you) also works with your father and sister and nephew and aunt, anyone who belongs to the family.
Yo Kim! Was machst du? Bist du zu beschäftigt, um deine Schwester anzurufen?
(Yo Kim! What are you doing? Are you too busy to give your sister a call?)
Oh Mann. Du bist so anstrengend.
(Oh man. You are so exhausting.)
It also works with children and animals, because they really don’t need you to show your formal respect.
Du bist aber ein süsser Hund! Was machst du denn ganz allein hier? Ich hol dich mit!
(You are such a cute dog! What are you doing here all by yourself? I’ll take you with me.)
KIM walking through the snow
Du bist so ein süsser Hund! So ein süsser Hund bist du!
(You are such a cute dog! Such a cute dog you are!)
Why is important to distinguish the two?
In many contexts, using du would appear rude. Walking into a hotel and say du (informal you) to the receptionist – she would think you have no respect for her. Like watch!
Guten Abend! Wie kann ich Ihnen behilflich sein?
(Good evening! How may I help you?)
Yo. Hast du noch’n Zimmer frei?
(Yo. Do you (informal) still have a room available?)
Maybe there still were rooms available. But the receptionist didn’t feel like accommodating a rude guest. So it would be wise to use the right pronoun, especially if you want something from someone! As we say in Germany: Der Ton macht die Musik! (It’s not what you say, but how you say it.)
Chunk Alert! Der Ton macht die Musik! (It's not what you say, but how you say it!) literally means “The sound makes the music”, meaning that the tone of voice determines how the content of your proposition will be received. The metaphor pretty much indicates that the conversation is screwed if you manage to come across disrespectfully. For more common phrases and chunks like this, make sure to get our Free Essential German Chunking Kit, and you’ll be able to have your first conversations in German right away! The link is in the description.
So conclusion. The following people should be addressed formally:
Sieze (Speak formally with)
- deine Rezeptionistin (your receptionist),
- deine Verkäuferin (your shop-assistant)
- deine Flugbegleiterin (your flight attendant)
- deinen Arzt (your doctor)
- deinen Elektriker (your electrician)
- deinen Lehrer (your teacher)
- Besonders die Lehrer! (especially the teachers!)
Wie alt bist du überhaupt? Zwölf oder was? (How old are you even? Twelve or what?)
Wie fändest du die Idee mich zu siezen, wär das was für dich? (How do you like the idea of speaking formally, would that be something for you?
That girl is probably in for detention! The amount of disrespect is unbeschreiblich (undescribable)!
That being said, people have their own perception of how they want to be addressed. Some 18 year olds feel offended if you call them Du, even if they are younger than you, because they don’t want to be taken for a child, while a middle-aged women may be offended to be called Sie, because it makes her feel old. That’s why there is no hard and fast rule that applies each and every time. You have to be attentive and sensitive to who you have in front of you.
However, if you are unsure of the other person ticks, it is better to play it safe and use the formal version Sie. At the end of the day is always better to be “too polite” than to be “too casual”. Worst case, the other person will invite you to a more informal way of communicating and offer you to call them Du.
3. Du kannst mich gerne duzen
When you have called someone Sie (you formal) and that person for some reason feels like the formality is superfluous, they may invite you to switch from Sie (you formal) zu Du(you informal). Which can look like this:
Hallo. Sind Sie Frau Fischer?
(Hello. Are you Ms Fischer?)
Ja. Du bist Kim, richtig? Du kannst gerne Du zu mir sagen.
(Yes. You’re Kim, right? Feel free to say Du to me.)
Soll mir Recht sein.
(Fine with me.)
Of course you can always accept when someone offers Du. Usually it has to be the older person who offers it to the younger person, or the person with “a higher rank” offering it to the person of lower rank. It is nice when it happens, because it marks that you can communicate on eye level. If the younger person, or the person of lower rank offers the Du, there is a risk that the older or higher-ranked person doesn’t approve, and then things can get a little awkward.
Hallo Kim. Sie sind früh dran.
(Hello Kim. You’re early.)
Wie wärs mit duzen?
(How about speaking informally?)
Danke, aber ich würde gerne beim Sie bleiben…
(Thank you, but I prefer to stay formal…)
Gratulation! (Congratulations!) You have now a great chance of hitting the right tone when conversing with a German person!