Trying to work out when to use the formal and informal form of address is often very confusing for newcomers to Germany. But are Germans becoming less formal?
Germany is engulfed by a fresh debate about spelling reform. For many newcomers to the country, though, one of the biggest problems is still coming to grips with speaking it.
Indeed, grappling with some of the more subtle features of German is one of the more trying parts of life for new arrivals in Germany.
Just when you think you have got the hang of it, confidence quickly unravels after you stumble attempting to pronounce a word or you just can’t quite seem to grasp what someone is saying. Or, heaven forbid, they reply to you in English.
An embarrassing retreat
How many times have you called someone “du” only to find them responding by calling you “Sie”? Somehow you have to make an embarrassing retreat and get the conversation back onto a more formal track.
Getting the hang of the formal and informal is especially difficult. Continental European societies tend to be a little more formal than the English-speaking world. One French Prime Minister supposedly required his wife used the formal form of address when she addressed him.
Formal and informal
There’s also the added problem of trying to work out when to you use the formal form of address. After all, ‘thou’ has long disappeared from everyday use in English.
Although considering the growing informality of English-language society, some people living in Europe find being able to turn on a formal means of address as a useful way of establishing some kind of distance in particular circumstances.
There was a time in Germany when using ‘Sie’ was fairly standard practice. You only ever called a small circle of family and friends (including pets) ‘du’. But this has dramatically changed in recent years as German society has grown somewhat less formal, especially among younger people.
Even today, some parents chide their children for being a bit too free with their use of ‘du’.
Switching to the informal
A recent opinion poll showed Germans are now much slower at adopting the informal form of address.
The number of Germans switching swiftly to the informal fell to 29% according to the Allensbach Institute of Opinion Research.
A more relaxed approach to the personal pronoun makes it easier for outsiders to use the formal form.
But just make things a little more complicated, the use of “du” and “Sie” tends to vary across the nation. Berliners and many east Germans are, for example, much more prone to indulge in a little bit of “duzen” than their counterparts in the western part of the nation.
For many, a relationship has to travel a relatively long road before they use “du”. This is especially the case in work situations or with neighbors.
When the friendship finally takes hold they can sometimes even set up a little ceremony to tell you that now you can now address each other by your first names and yes that you can use “du”.
Addressing by name
One rule to remember is that people generally use the informal when addressing someone by their first name in German. In the east, people can still call you by your first name but address you as “Sie”.
The best idea is to try and to wait and take the lead from the German you are speaking to. If they call you “du” (phew!!) then it is ok for you. But sometimes it’s not possible to hold back and you have to take the plunge and go with “du” or “Sie”.
What seems to have happened is that the use of “du” and “Sie” appears to have evolved into something of a class thing.
This means you can call someone “du” if you feel comfortable with them. While for the most part, “Sie” is the rule in dealing with shop assistants and waiters, in some more trendy outfits they like to thing they are more ‘locker’ (relaxed) so “du” is the go.
Age is also something to take into account. If you are under 35 years, “du” will probably do.
Members of clubs or groups such as sporting associations as well as gays and lesbians also often immediately address each other as “du”.
But it is probably better, no matter how relaxed you feel in their company, not to call your bank manager or the police “du.”