„Darf ich Sie duzen?“ or German intimacy issues

21 Oct

Now here is a tricky question that I hear frequently from German learning foreigners: When do you use „Du“ and when „Sie“? In German we have two forms of addressing people, a formal and an informal one. This in itself is not so unusual. English might not have it but countless other languages do. However, the decision when to use which form seems to be more complicated in German than say for example in Norwegian where the formal form is reserved for the king.

The choice is a difficult one to make even for Germans, and not just because we don’t have a king. There is one rule of thumb that we learn as children. All conversations and relationships (outside of family) start out with “Sie” and then it is the job of the older one to offer the “Du”. Sounds easy, right? Well, and then there are the exceptions. A young waitress in a hip bar will use the informal address for her boss, even though their relationship is purely professional. Two university students meeting at a party for the first time wouldn’t dream of using anything but the informal form. The parents of my childhood friend will forever use the informal form with me while I will always stick to the formal one when talking to them. And I know people who have been doing grammatical gymnastics for years when faced with their in-laws because they are unable to decide which form to use.

In order to make sense of this, it might help to look at it chronologically. Children are always addressed with “Du”. By everyone. In secondary school teachers start using “Sie” for their students from ninth grade on. This is when the messy time starts. Teenagers among each other will always use “Du”, adults will gradually start to use “Sie” if they don’t know them. In the years between age twenty and twenty-five I could slowly feel the balance shift when people asked me for a light or directions on the street. By the time I was 26 everyone, even people my own age, used the formal address with me. That’s when you know you are now officially regarded as an adult by the world. In professional relationships “Sie” is the usual choice unless you work in certain types of areas like the bar or media industry.

Several friends of mine think all this “Sie” and “Du” business is totally unnecessary and would like to do away with it completely. And it is true; the point behind it has something to do with respect but also with keeping your distance. It is things like that which cause other nations to claim the Germans are cold and unwelcoming. The German language provides the opportunity to cement hierarchy and even superiority. The formal address usually keeps the other person at arm’s length. I, however, am a fan. Keeping my formal relationships formal makes my informal ones so much more special. And using the polite form reminds everyone to stay professional and refrain from insults in moments of great frustration. “Sie Arschloch” is just a bit harder to say than “Du Arschloch”.

I once had a job where I had to work for a man who was in every respect a horrible person. Unfortunately, before I realized that, I had agreed to address each other with “Du” and first names. From that point on I cringed every time I heard him call me “Du”. I didn’t want this guy to think we were friends. I wanted to make clear that we were very different people and that I don’t want him close to me in any respect. I kept wondering whether there was any polite way to return to the formal address. Unfortunately there is none. So I guess my personal rule of thumb and advice is this: When in doubt, start with “Sie”, if only because it is much easier and more pleasant to go from formal to informal.

2 Responses to “„Darf ich Sie duzen?“ or German intimacy issues”

  1. Yngvild October 29, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    hi, im reading 🙂 and enjoying. 🙂

  2. Luis Rivas July 12, 2019 at 9:00 pm #

    We have the same problem in Spanish. Just to add to the confusion, I have some friends whom I met as adults, but we quickly changed from usted (formal) to tu (informal) when talking to each other; however, we still use usted when talking to each other’s wives.
    It is also generational, some of my older cousins would use “tu” with my mom (they were childhood friends) but usted with dad (who was their blood uncle and maybe 11-14 older than them). I, twenty some years younger than my cousins, used tu with my aunt (their mom), even though, she was close to 40 years older than me.
    I can keep on going, but I’ll stop there.
    Viele gruesse (I don’t know how to make the dieresis or scharfes s) aus Houston!

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