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Du vs. Sie

I find formal yous confusing in German. It bothers me a bit that Duolingo's lacks emphasis on du vs. Sie.

If I understand it correctly, this is still a deeply rooted and important part of good manners in Germany. I've been taught that du is reserved for family and your closest friends, while Sie is for everyone else - including colleagues you've worked with for years as well as acquaintances and neighbours.

Or am I wrong? If I'm right, I think Duolingo should encourage the use of Sie over du.

I'm not used to this kind of formality in my every day life. In Sweden we had a language-reform in the late 60s, where formal yous and titles were largely, not to say totally, abandoned. We simply "du" everyone.

As I will be speaking German mainly as a tourist, and perhaps once in a while in business, I want to come off as well mannered and gentlemanly.

January 14, 2015



I understand that you want more information, but unfortunately, there aren't any hard rules. It really depends a lot on the situation and the individual people around you how the "du vs. Sie" thing is handled. Even for native speakers, there are situations where you just need to feel what's appropriate. It's next to impossible to write up rules for that.

So my advice for language learners is, just start with "Sie" and don't mind being corrected/ invited to use "du". This way, you won't insult anyone, and if the native speaker thinks it's better to use "du", he will happily tell you and has a chance to come across as approachable at the same time, so everyone wins.


This is my strategy. I'll use Sie as the default. I'd rather come off as over-polite and unassuming than as uncivil. It'll take me years still to reach a decent level of German anyway, but I want to learn it "correct" from the start.

But this kind of proves my point: Duolingo should emphasize more on formal you. As it is now, you is pretty much du this and du that.


It is important, and you need to learn it. But "closest friends" is a bit exaggerated, depending where and in which context you are. You should always use it in business context unless you are part of a team. Then it depends on the business but typically you would use "Du" with close colleagues. And there are some shops or cafés where it is common to use "Du" for strangers which often is a (political) statement. But using "Du" for e.g. acquaintances, (sports) club members or similar is the norm. Of course there are some who insist on "Sie", for various reasons. When you are at a black tie event then there is no question about this.

So it is a little more relaxed nowadays. I would even say that in most personal contexts not the "Du" is the special exception, but the "Sie". Especially if talking dialect (but not exclusively) the formal address can even be a means for (negative) distinction.

Honestly, I find languages with the T-V distinction much easier to handle in terms of politeness than e.g. Swedish after the du reformen. If the polite address is formalised it is obvious in which context you are. The latter have distinctions also but they are hidden much better and harder to recognize, e.g. the name you use, sometimes nickname, certain kinds of phrases. It is easier to see limits, e.g. which jokes or questions are appropriate, when the context is obvious.

Oh, and I should note that I live close to Denmark which probably has some influence also.


I get your point about T-V, but you also have to take into account that Sweden is way less hierarchic than Germany (or Denmark for that matter). There's less need for the forced politeness and formality.

This of course has up and down sides. The down side is that everyone think their opinion should count at all times, and gladly voice it, even if it's ridiculous. With "weak" leadership, making decisions can take ages when everyone is having their say. I also find that Swedes, compared to other nationalities, are less polite in many ways. It's like the lack of politeness in words also means less politeness in deed.

But the up side is a greater feel of equality.

That said, there's no shortage of subtle social rules. And perhaps these are harder to learn when they're not reflected in the language - though it's probably about the same, only different, in every country/culture.


I personally prefer the Scandinavian approach.

I don't experience Swedes as less polite, on the contrary. In fact I think that formal politeness is used as a replacement for real politeness too often. That is, people use the right phrases and have the correct manners, but are insulting, hurting or irregardless with the content. But the façade looks proper. I prefer honest words.

Even in languages with T-V distinction there are, of course, more or less subtle differences within the group. For example you can "Siezen" someone but what name do you use to address him? First name, last name, "Herr/Frau" + lastname, title? Everything is possible, everything has a different connotation. Even the strange combination of "Duzen" (informal) and formal name ("Herr/Frau" + name) can be found sometimes, when colleagues that are informal to each other are talking in public: "Du, Frau Meier, kannst Du mir mal den Preis sagen?".

T-V distinction is useful as you have a rough first approach to social situations. And if you generally start formal then you are always on the safe side. But it doesn't remove differences in general.

Both have ups and downs but as I said I prefer the Scandinavian approach - even regarding possible longer time needed for decisions. Fast decisions against part of the group means that the decision isn't shared with everyone and people who feel neglected will actively and passively oppose it, leading to a longer execution time and more discontent, and to a higher rate of failure of projects started this way. It has advantages only in life threatening extreme situations (war, accidents, certain medical treatments...), if the time for decisions exists it is almost exclusively preferable to take the time.


Yeah, you get it right. 'Du' is for family and good friend and friends. 'Sie' is for all the other ones.

And if you want to know it more detailed it gets difficult. Younger people like to say 'du' more often to colleges than older one. The older person (or the person in the higher position) decides what is used! So it take a certain time until you get offered the 'du'. It is comon that people out of the same company say 'du',. In contrast people out of different companies use 'Sie' to adress each other during a meeting. And because the most people have to use a 'Sie' it is sometimes polite not to say, that you are the only one, who is allowed to use 'du'. But if all the others know that you always use (or have to use) 'du' in your company, you stay at 'du'.

If I have a little easy question and I ask someone on the street in my age(young, not more than 7 years older) I use 'du'. But I only do it, if the person is definitive in my age. The older persons tend to use 'Sie'. If they like each other they switch to 'du'. But if they do it not switch to 'du', it does not say they don't like each other!


Do Germans (in general) give any leeway to non-Germans (especially tourists) on the Sie vs Du issue?


I guess it depends on the general level of his German proficiency. If someone speaks very bad German, you surely would not hold it against him if he says "du", although it may cause people to frown. If he speaks at a decent level, you can expect him to correctly use this form. But since most phrasebooks for tourists give the "Sie" version of sentences, you rarely find an unintentionally impolite tourist anyway.


And it is much easier to use 'Sie' instead of 'du'. So if I offered it some years ago, I was said we should stay by 'Sie', because it is much easier. 'Sie essen' -you can use the infinitive form, while 'du isst' needs another form (a conjungated form). ;)


Not only is Sie easier, but "ihr" is so easily forgotten (at least for me!). In school in the US, students would practice most often Sie form because it was the easiest. But rarely ever used ihr form. And in school, it was stressed that Du form was only used with very close friends. So many of us students assumed that one would only use Du with relatives and one or two friends.

When I finally visited Germany, I was in for some shock. Made a friend on my first trip and went back several years later to visit. I was used to using Du form with him. He introduced me to someone and I used Sie form - I didn't know this person. I was informed I should call his friends Du. Now when there was a group of us together, I kept slipping into Sie form because there was a group of us and I simply hadn't practiced ihr form for many, many years. Fortunately the group thought it was funny - especially when I would say, "Sind Sie...ahhhhh, Seid ihr......"

But I was very surprised at all the people who offered Du form!


Over the last 20 years it changed from 'Sie' to use more often 'du'.

But even today it is strange when an employee by IKEA use 'du'! I want to buy something, so it is a serios situation. I prefere in such situations 'Sie' even if he/she is in my age. He / she must be very sympathic and closed to my age, that I feel comfortable with 'du'. There are more than a handful people complained about the philosophy of IKEA to use always 'du'. Because in trade-situations we like to stay seperated - and therefore we use 'Sie'. ;)


Yes, in shops and offices (if you visit them, not if you work there), "Sie" is common. There are some shops, mostly smaller ones for some niche product like game shops or tattoo parlors, where you are greeted with "du". But it's absolutely strange to not be called "Sie" in a big chain furniture store. Even the staff at IKEA visibly cringes every time or goes back to "Sie" despite the order from management. I don't think it's their intention to make people feel less comfortable...

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