In Germany, mastering politeness is vital if you want to establish good relationships. This is certainly true in the business world. The tricky thing is that there are two words which both mean ‘you’, and if you use the wrong one, it could result in the other party feeling slightly insulted. Time to learn how to effectively use ‘Sie’ and ‘du’.
How do you know when to use Sie?
It can be tricky to know exactly when you are expected to be formal or when it is okay not to be. Using ‘Sie’ can form a barrier between you and the other party, and can be seen as a sign that you do not want to develop the relationship any further. That barrier could hold you back from forming long lasting friendships, but on the other hand, it is too risky to impulsively start using ‘du’. So how do you know when it’s time to switch from Sie to du?
Some signs that you can take notice of are the following:
- A person introduces themselves by their first name. While this might seem like a normal thing, it signifies closeness and familiarity.
- They are addressing you with ‘du’. Be careful with this one since there are exceptions where it is not okay to be familiar back to them. An older person might address you with ‘du’ but you need to show your respect to an older person by addressing them with ‘Sie’.
- They ask you directly if it’s okay to start talking casually. Remember that the German culture values directness.
Still, if you aren’t sure which form to use, stick with ‘Sie’ and you will be safe. It is always better to be a little too polite than to be rude from the start.
Sietzen and dutzen
Germans will generally use the words ‘sietzen’ and ‘dutzen’ when talking about these matters. They are just the verbs of ‘Sie’ and ‘du’. ‘Sietzen’ means addressing someone with ‘Sie’ while ‘dutzen’ means the opposite, addressing someone with ‘du’. Sometimes, after a certain period of time, when two people have got to know each other, they might ask/say: ‘Kann ich Sie dutzen?’/ ‘Sie können mich dutzen’, which translates into: ‘Can I talk to you in a familiar way?’/ ‘You don’t need to talk that formally’. It means you have become closer and can now be more familiar and informal with each other. Whether you will change from Sie to du generally depends on the atmosphere and working culture of the company you’re dealing with. Don’t be disappointed if the change never happens, as a lot of German people prefer to keep work and private life separate by keeping things professional during business.
Conjugating verbs with Sie and Du’
For those who are worrying about how to conjugate verbs using ‘Sie’, the good news is that it’s actually easier than using ‘du’. When you talk in the familiar or informal way, you need to constantly conjugate the verbs, which isn’t always easy, if you take a look at all the rules (and all the exceptions on the rules). However, when using ‘Sie’, you simply use the infinitive of the verb. Piece of cake! Here are some examples:
This helps a lot when you are still a beginner at German and don’t know your verbs that well. Just by knowing your infinitives you will master ‘Sie’ in no time. Of course the long term goal would be to master both ‘Sie’ and ‘du’.
The term Hochdeutsch means proper German. As in many languages, German has a lot of dialects, which can make it a tad more difficult to understand sometimes. Sometimes, it is even the case that Germans from different regions and who have different dialects struggle to understand each other!. Luckily, ‘Sietzen’ and ‘Hochdeutsch’ go hand in hand. A lot of people switch to proper German when addressing someone formally, this also automatically creates the correct atmosphere for work-orientated conversation.
Language courses can help you a lot when it comes to learning proper German. If you started learning German in a specific dialect, it can be difficult to communicate professionally with others. Take a look at our German courses in Berlin if you’d like to learn how to efficiently communicate.
The younger generation
The gap between Sie and du used to be bigger in the past than it is today. This signifies that somebody speaks to you casually on the street. Mainly our younger generation seems to use du rather than Sie when talking to someone. They don’t like the use of the distant, impersonal language which some older people stand by. Perhaps there may arrive a time where the use of Sie will slowly fade away.
All in all, it is safe to say that Sie and du are different sides of the same coin, very alike yet different in meaning.