When to say 'du' - and when you don't.

When to say 'du' - and when you don't.

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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 might be engulfed by a fresh debate about spelling reform, but for many newcomers to the country one of the biggest problems is still coming to grips with speaking the language. 

Indeed, grappling with some of the more, shall we say subtle features of the German language, 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, the whole confidence thing can quickly unravel after you stumble attempting to pronounce a word or you just can't quite seem to grasp what someone is saying — or even worse they reply to you in English.

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.

Just when you think you've got the hang of it, your confidence can unravel

For English speakers there is also the added problem of trying to work out when to you use the formal "Sie" and informal "du" form of address. After all, "thou" has long disappeared from everyday use in English.

Getting the hang of the formal and informal is especially difficult because continental European societies tend to be a little more formal than the English language world. One recent French Prime Minister was supposed to even require that his wife used the formal form of address when she addressed him.

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 and that 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.

Still even today some grandparents and even parents chide their children for being a bit too free and easy with their use of "du".

And a recent opinion poll showed Germans are now much slower at adopting the informal form of address in conversation than they were a decade.

The number of Germans switching swiftly to the informal in conversation has fallen to 29 percent compared to 33 percent ten years ago, the Allensbach Institute of Opinion Research.

Nevertheless a somewhat more relaxed approach to the personal pronoun makes it kind of easier for outsiders trying work out how they should call "du" and who they don't. 

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.

Indeed, for many of those coming from the west, a relationship has to travel a relatively long and formal road before they are prepared to use "du". This is especially the case in work situations or with neighbours.

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".
Anyway, one rule to remember is that people generally use the informal when addressing someone by their first name in German. But just so that things are too easy, in the east, people can still call you by your first name but address you as "Sie".  

Of course 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."



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