Du or Sie?
I've always thought that you used 'du' when referring to someone very close, like a family member or an extremely close friend. And that 'Sie' was used to refer to strangers, adults, or not-so-close friends. Is this correct? Is there something else I am missing? Thanks for the help!
Yes, pretty much.
There was traditionally a custom of "drinking brothership" and you were allowed to call someone "du" only after you had done this.
It's a bit less formal now but it's still a good idea to start off with "Sie" with strangers and wait for "du" to be offered before using that. (The person who is allowed to offer it is a bit tricky but is generally the older one and/or the one higher up in a hierarchy (e.g. in a company) and/or the woman. The tricky bit is when those rules don't select a unique person, e.g. if one person is older but lower down in the hierarchy and the other is younger but superior.)
You can also use "du" to children (below 12 or so) whether you know them or not.
And if you are below 24 or so, then other people of around your age are often fair game for "du" as well even if you meet them for the first time (say, in a youth hostel while travelling).
Finally, Internet conventions are a bit looser than face-to-face ones, perhaps because Internet access was formerly available essentially only in universities, where students are more prone to using "du" as I said.
So don't be surprised if someone on a website forum or a Usenet thread addresses you as "du" even if you've never seen them before.
Online, you can choose to take the cautious route of starting with "Sie" and being prepared to switch to "du" when offered fairly soon, or you can simple be bold and address others with "du".
Best middle way might be to lurk for a few months and see how most users address each other, before saying anything yourself :)
- Du = informal
- Sie = formal
Which one to use will depend on the person and the situation. It may very well happen that you use Sie for a person you don't know very well and they tell you to just use du, which is similar in other languages like Dutch and French.
In the end though, if you're not entirely sure what to use just use Sie. It's better to be told to use du, because the other way around one would just think you are rude but more than likely not say anything.
How might somebody tell me to use du? Does German have verbs similar to the French tutoyer and vouvoyer?
It does have verbs for that: duzen, siezen.
So you might hear "Wir können uns (gerne) duzen." (We can use the du forms with each other.) / "Wollen wir uns nicht duzen?" (Shan't we say du to one another?)
Or you might simply hear them state their given name just after you have used Sie with them - "Ich heiße Peter." - as an implied invitation to use du (since using Sie usually correlates with using titles + family names, e.g. "Herr Müller, Frau Schmidt", with some interesting exceptions I won't go into here).
Or you might hear the more formal, "Darf ich Ihnen das Du anbieten?" (May I offer you the du?).
It is less strict now than it was 20 years ago, but still very tricky. Basically it is a good idea for non natives not to use "Du" right away, because there are a lot of different nuances when it is appropriate and when it really is not. In young companies, like in mine, you even say "Du" to the CEO, but in old ones you are not even allowed to switch to "Du" among colleagues. On the other hand it can be rude to say "Du" to shop clerks and other service workers, no matter how young they are. Usually it shows a lack of respect not to address a formal "Sie".
If you meet someone in a bar and you and that person is younger than 60, it is okay to say "Du". But if someone is hitting on you and you have no interest in getting to know that person, then "Sie" is the right choice ;-) Among students you use "Du" as well. In fact, most people below the age of 40 do so, especially in the bigger cities. Even if you start with "Sie", you usually switch to "Du" quite quickly.
In formal communication you always use "Sie". Even in short emails. In messageboards, like on Duolingo, you usually use "Du". It is a common behaviour from the very beginning of the internet, when only a group of people (nerds) went online and it felt like being part of a family. However, sometimes in discussions you will encounter "Sie", but it is only when a) the parties are fighting or b) some (mostly very old) people have no idea of the "Du"-rule.
In movies Du/Sie ist mostly used as a stylistic device. Characters, who are close friends say "Sie" to strengthen the level of respect, while the bad guys say "Du", to picture their disrespect.
For a non native speaker it is probably the best, always to start a conversation with "Sie", you cannot do anything wrong with that.
The 'Sie' is kind of dying out nowadays. This unfortunately makes it extremely difficult for you. If you are/look not that old people might use "Du" but expect you to use "Sie" and such nonsense. Lot's of people only ever use "Sie" for "official" people, or people who are quite a bit older, or not at all. But I would say, you never use it for friends any more — now matter how close or not close they are. In work-situation "Sie" is used unless someone says otherwise.
Regarding situations at work, I'm afraid it's not that easy. Your mileage may differ but that only confirms the problem since it heavily depends on where you work, what and with who. There are now teachers, especially younger ones, who like being addressed by students "du"-wise. Something all but unheard of even a couple of years ago. At university, you'll find yourself in du-contexts more often than anything else, between fellow students it's simply normal. There are companies where employees use "du" all across the board. Some even make it an explicit in-house rule.
"Sie" is getting more and more uncommon, we're practically seeing it out. It's basically only ever used with total strangers and/or personalities of some authority or rank. In terms of a general if not failsafe guideline and in the (probably rare) case of utter uncertainty I'd propose to use it whenever you would add something like Sir/Mr or Ma'am/Mrs in English. That's only natural considering the example we try to follow in this respect is English anyway, and by proxy certain Scandinavian languages. Hence, some police officer in the street is and remains a "Sie-person", likewise a physician you visit. So too a stranger you bumped into in the supermarket. But that's really as formal as it gets.
edit: Sorry I've misread your last sentence. To use it until someone says otherwise is a perfectly legit way to go, of course.