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Du vs. Sie (once again), contextual this time

I apologize for bringing up this painful question yet another time, but I guess it's inevitable that it will be brought up by different people for as long as people learn German and try to remain polite in the process.

I've read this old discussion and this Wikipedia article, and, like many other discussions about it, they taught me two things:

  1. It's culturally important.
  2. It's highly contextual.

So here goes the context.

I was typing a message discussing what we shall do about an obviously odd and unreasonable customer request to a German colleague who works in a different department (he's in servicing/repairs, I'm in marketing/customer support) of the same international company.

We've been working for this company for about 10 years already, communicate occasionally (because working for different departments we are not exactly members of any common project team or something) and see each other about once a year or two at corporate events like training sessions and fairs when I come to Germany. During these visits the guy is friendly and helpful somewhat beyond what's required by his duties or the mere politeness of being just hospitable. He also likes discussing cultural peculiarities as much as his English (not particularly struggling, but far from being fluent, especially when it comes to things unrelated to his tasks at work) allows him to.

So I thought it might be a good idea to write something like, "Hi Arnold! Wie geht es dir?" for "How is it going?" and then switch back to English.

But then I stuck. I'm sure he will not be offended if I say something awkward, but neither will he be pleased, understandably, and displeasing anyone is not my intention. So is the described level of friendliness sufficient to use "du"? If not, is a phrase "Wie geht es Ihnen?" even valid? I've never seen it with this pronoun, but my experience is far too limited to be at any rate reliable... Could I have skipped the pronoun (altogether with all the related awkwardness) at all and leave it as "Wie geht es?" which technically is a compete sentence, or would I just make it awkward the other way around then?

After all I just deleted that part and sent the message without it, and came here to clarify this so that I'm better prepared for the next time :)

So, how close was I to doing a disastrously stupid thing? X-[

February 16, 2018



I would like to ask you two more things.

Am I correct in assuming that you use your first names, when you are talking or writing? Although it is possible to use the first name in combination with Sie, it is hardly ever done.

Are you approx. the same age? If he is a lot older than you are, Sie is always safer.


Marie 973350 hit the nail on the head, and is giving you the most appropriate answer to your question, I think. I am a native German speaker; have studied and worked in Germany as well as in US. Besides all that and given your already established relationship with this person, what, and how do you feel about how friendly and colloquial he would want to deal and converse with you? Right there, you should find your answer.

[deactivated user]

    Yes... perfect complement to my answer. Those two questions are important too.


    Yes, we use first names and start messages with "hi", not "dear". But we normally communicate in English, and English seems to be a lot milder about using first names.

    As to the age, the guy is like 5-10 years older, so I'd say he's about in my age group, not my dad's, and I am not just from the college either so the relative difference in age is less significant. But I have no idea about how age groups are calculated by Germans :)


    In that case, I would probably use du. If you want to be on the safe side, you can just ask if that is ok.

    Wie geht es dir? (I hope it's ok if I use "du".)


    Wie geht es dir? (Or should I rather say "Wie geht es Ihnen?")

    That way you leave the ultimate decision to him.


    Taking for granted that you usually address your colleague with his first name, the "Du" is just fine. Even "Hi" would probably be fine, if your colleague is used to talk to English speaking people. In German, "Hi" is considered very colloquial and more for young people, kids, school friends etc.

    It's always fine to start with "Sie" if you meet new people. If they say "Du" then, you just do the same. "Asymmetrisches Duzen" (one side uses Du, the other Sie) doesn't exist anymore, except with children. Also, when someone introduces himself to you (or is introduced to you) using just his first name, I would assume that "Du" is fine. A family name is always a good hint for "Sie". (Hallo Peter, wie geht es Dir? Guten Tag Herr Müller, wie geht es Ihnen?)

    In general, it's also a good advice to use "Sie" if you differ in age, social state, rank or whatever, in either direction. Among colleagues of equal rank it is common to use "Du", but if this differs from the usual habits in your company, this "Du" has to be offered by one side. In case of different ranks, only the higher rank can offer it. In some companies the "Du" is generally accepted.

    Apart from that, friends and family are always addressed with "Du", mostly also people who you know from leisure activities, from your sports club for example, but all "foreigners" with "Sie". Some shops and stores that want to appear young and fancy generally use "Du" with their customers (and thus vice versa), but not everyone likes that....

    If you feel, that "Sie" might be too formal in a certain situation, or "Du" is maybe not totally appropriate, you are always allowed to ask, especially if you are not a native. ("Entschuldigung, ist es in Ordnung wenn ich 'Du' sage?") But people might be biased to say yes, because it might be impolite to say no. So maybe add that you just don't know how it's generally handled.....

    [deactivated user]

      That's pretty much bit-by-bit the same way in Portuguese. As I said in my first post, there are not many variations between countries that use the "formal you".


      I would say ''wie geht es Ihnen" is definitely safer, especially since this is at work. If he thinks you should use 'du' he will tell you, especially since you're foreign.
      The other way round he is unlikely to tell you but might think it's rude if he expected 'Sie'. If he calls you 'du' then it's definitely fine to use it back though. Using first names usually also means using 'du' but since you've been communicating in English this might not be true here.

      [deactivated user]

        Ahh, the old "formal you" question. I think all languages that have it use it roughly the same way so I'll give you my rule of thumb:

        When in doubt go with Sie.

        Some people can get displeased being treated by "du" if they perceive your level of familiarity is not sufficiently close, while the other way round doesn't happen. If you're using "Sie" with someone they might put you at ease and say it's ok for you to use "du" with them. So ultimately you'll be the judge on the closeness of that relationship.

        This is the theory... now for the specific German case our German experts call fill you in better.


        I think all languages that have it use it roughly the same way

        I guess so. But there are two problems. First, it's the word "roughly" where I'd prefer it to be "exactly" to ease things up. :) Second, sometimes Sie is used to put some distance between you and someone you don't want to get friendly with. So Sie can (at least theoretically) also be displeasing for pushing away someone friendly.

        Combined these nuances make things incredibly tricky to figure out.

        [deactivated user]

          From what I get from Marie's post below it's more close to "exactly" than "roughly".

          Sie is used to put some distance between you and someone you don't want to get friendly with.

          Yes, but that occurs more in relationships outside work. The Sie treatment is very common in the working environment, except if you're talking with the colleagues that sit everyday on the desks next to you. And even so the older ones usually get the "Sie" treatment. So, think of ages too... the older the person is the better it is for you to use "Sie"... younger people don't mind "du" as much.


          That depends very much on the company...

          [deactivated user]

            It does... but we don't know exactly the profile of Peter's company so I'm giving the "generic company code of conduct". :)


            In this particular company I've heard the German guys addressing each other with both - depending on how friendly and close they are, apparently.

            However, it's hard to tell for sure because they are polite enough to switch to English when they see me, and I am polite enough not to try eavesdropping, so I don't get exposed to their conversations too much :)


            I agree that when you decide on that question, you decide on how close the two of you are.

            Still, it can also be a little weird if people use Sie and you don't know if they do that because they would prefer that version or because they are uncertain, which one to use.

            Traditionally it would then be up to the more senior person to offer the use of du.

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