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When to use du and Sie

January 4, 2010

Anyone learning the German language whose native language, e.g.- English, lacks the notion of second person formal and informal has surely felt the pain of trying to figure out when to use du or Sie in conversation. Even those of us who have done this for nearly 30 years struggle with this weighty decision on at least a weekly basis. I thought it was high time for me to take my accumulated ‘wisdom’ and put it into a simple, easy-to-follow chart that you can print out, place in your wallet or purse, and whip out when the need arises. Click the image below to download the PDF version. Sorry, no large print edition is currently available.

Have fun!

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46 Comments
  1. January 12, 2010 14:27

    and for those, who like books, try “Dear Doosie” about the du/Sie problem – seems strange, but it is a love story :-)

  2. February 4, 2010 13:43

    Dale, I like this. Two questions:

    A) Can you do it for the decision between using Mr. Askey or Dale for an American context?
    B) May I use your flowchart as an example of a flowchart that is not as boring as the existing ones in my module on automatic indexing? (http://www.bui.haw-hamburg.de/pers/ursula.schulz/astep/step_0.html)

    Greetings from Ursula

    P.S. I could make a flowchart for people to decide wether to call me Ursula or Uschi ;-)

  3. Dale permalink*
    February 4, 2010 14:16

    Thanks, Ursula (or should I use Uschi – help, need a flow chart).

    Had to chuckle at your comment, since a flowchart for A) would be very short indeed, since we are a first name culture, as you know. When I hear someone call me Mr. Askey, I assume that either a) they want to sell me something, b) they have clearly never met me in person (and thus do not know that I have something of an issue with using last names, period), or c) that I have broken the law in some fashion. Would make a funny flow chart, come to think of it, and when I have a couple of hours to doodle in Illustrator, I will get on it. To paraphrase the sea turtle in Finding Nemo, Mr. Askey is my father.

    On B), by all means, go ahead. I gave it a CC license for this reason, so all I require is a mention of the source. My flow chart might be more exciting than yours, but I find the structure of the module pretty cool and I got some ideas from it for a course next semester.

  4. February 9, 2010 10:02

    Haha, I won’t ask how long it took you, but I think it’s quite acurate. Listen to Annett Louisan’s “Siezgelegenheit” to re-think the “have you had/do you have intimate relations?” issue.. ;)

  5. February 20, 2010 00:11

    I mentioned your chart in a blog entry, hope that is o.k. :)

    • Dale permalink*
      February 21, 2010 18:51

      By all means. That’s what this is all about – reading and linking. Many thanks.

  6. February 20, 2010 01:48

    There’s a contradiction in your chart: On the one hand I should use “Sie” if the person is supposed to have grey hair, on the other hand I should use “Du” if the person is an Alt-68er. Well, come on, which Alt-68er still has his original hair color? I mean, they are about 60 years old by now!

    • Alex permalink
      February 20, 2010 02:46

      An Alt-68er is the germasn version of a Hippy. They wear knitted pullovers and still have long, grey hair and a Peace pedant.

      For them, if you siez someone you are part of “the establishment” and that is a bad thing. ;)

      but you are right, one should look for Alt-68er before judging the hair color.

      • February 20, 2010 21:13

        “An Alt-68er is the germasn version of a Hippy.”

        Yes, I know – I’m German as well. Otherwise I hadn’t stated it…^^

      • Dale permalink*
        February 21, 2010 18:56

        Well, errors/contradictions are inevitable, that is the whole point of the chart. One should never really arrive at a clear conclusion, but get confused and frustrated!

    • February 15, 2013 16:58

      yes an Alt-68er is the german version of a Hippy, but be aware some of them are now more than “non alt-68″ :-) They are now business men and women and love to hear your “Sie” :-)

  7. lifestartsnow permalink
    February 21, 2010 14:18

    very interesting chart! i’ll pass that on to any german learners i know! ~ franzi

  8. Kermit permalink
    February 21, 2010 16:16

    Thanks for this. A lot of thruth is in this. If addressing collegues it depends on the job: The more technical the job is, the more “Du”.

    Since I have to go to Texas next month: Could you provide me with a ruleset on when to use “Sir”?

    Kermit

    • Dale permalink*
      February 21, 2010 18:57

      Oh, this is easy, Kermit. If a gun is visible, one says sir.

    • joe permalink
      February 21, 2010 19:26

      Kermit:

      My father was from Texas and I think I may be able to help. Call everyone who is older than you ‘Sir’, except your co-workers of a similar grade, people helping you in a service capacity and those working in a menial job, unless they are over 60. This applies to everyone: Tejanos, Mexicans, Blacks, Indians, Whites…Every woman over 30 not related to you by blood or marriage, i.e. not “your people”, is to be addressed as “Ma’am”.

      • Kermit permalink
        February 26, 2010 23:56

        Thanks Dale and Joe.

        I will act accordingly and call everyone over 60 or visibly carrying weapons “Sir” unless it is a woman. All woman, who do not fall into the “girl” category will be addressed as “Ma’am” (gun and no-gun).

  9. February 22, 2010 16:10

    Die feine Differenzierung zwischen München & Berlin ist besonders gelungen 8-)

  10. Michael permalink
    February 22, 2010 21:02

    It’s not that easy, of course.

    I had a “Hamburger Sie” relationship (Sie + forename) with my landlord and with one of my teachers though none of us was from Hamburg.

    In my hometown Berlin some people combine Du and family name – mostly ironically (e.g. my father and his former colleague) .

    • Rafael permalink
      February 23, 2010 16:44

      This is interesting – I’ve mainly heard “Du and family name” used by supermarket cashiers: “Frau Schmitz, komm mal an Kasse zwei, ich brauch Storno.” (I don’t even know how to express “ich brauch mal Storno” in english (-; )

      One of my favourite examples for confusion like this are university classes.

      Normally, I would duz other students (which could be added to the flowchart: if you’re a student, duz everyone on campus except for professors), but since introduction rounds seem to have gone out of style and the professors siez all of us, I don’t really know a lot of first names.
      This often results in awkwardness and careful avoiding of any names; I’ve even gone so far as “Hey, Du da”-ing people.

      I once took a class in which a Gymnasium teacher was substituting.
      Since he was used to duzing his students, he kept on switching between du and sie until we had enough and offered to duz him if he would stop siezing us.
      That made everything a lot more comfortable, even though it was technically breaking social protocol.

      • February 15, 2013 17:07

        Du and family name ist also common in Upper Austria. We see us the first time: “Du Frau Thon-Soun” if you are younger or elder or my boss. We see us every day “Du Frau Monika”, we are friends “Du Monika”. This is a special form of dialect. And there are great differences between dialects at Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, or Vienna :-) . Don’t use it if you are not 100% sure .

  11. Greg permalink
    February 23, 2010 10:16

    Well done,
    I would agree with your chart. (there are always exceptions). If in doubt, I often wait with the du/Sie decision until the other person adresses me and avoid the “second person”. As you stated, it depends much on the situation. And even natives struggle sometimes.

    On the other hand, there are people that I would always “siez” until they would allow me to “duz” them, even if they already say “du” to me. For example, the parents of my girlfriend/fiance, non-related “older” people (depends on their general appearance), professors at university and people that I really don’t like. On the other hand, if you keep saying “sie” when you were told to say “du”, that would be impolite in most situations. Sometimes, you really have to force yourself to “duz” someone.

    • Dale permalink*
      February 23, 2010 12:08

      Thanks for the comment, Greg. I meant this as a joke to some degree, but of course a joke with a basis in reality.

      Interesting that we behave differently in situations where someone uses du with us. That is considered by most to be a tacit offer to use du (I have discussed this very point extensively with many different people in Germany) or essentially an unspoken invitation by the person with the upper hand (due to age or position) in the conversation. I would never use du with a student, for example, since that would be speaking to them as if they were schoolchildren.

  12. knospe permalink
    April 7, 2010 10:45

    “Should this person have gray hair?” Very nice.

    A great way to decide this question. Fits nearly every situation I’ve ever been in.

  13. Dale permalink*
    April 7, 2010 11:54

    Many thanks, Knospe. I left (at least) one bit out of the chart (am already thinking about a revision), namely what to do about non-humans, i.e.- things like dogs, cars, and god. They are always du, of course, but it does seem a bit odd to address a god so personally.

  14. Jill permalink
    October 27, 2010 02:48

    I really liked this.
    I got an “oh surprise” apprenticeship in Germany after college and went to work with no German and high school French. I immediately engaged a tutor, but in my first German conversation with my supervisor – I made the du mistake. It was the only tense that I had learned yet. Frosty response.
    The same problem holds true somewhat here in Canada as well. I was working with Anne Bancroft and she introduced herself to me as Anne. Having lived in the States for 10 years and just moved back to Canada -this is – from what I understand of American etiquette- the American equivalent to du. I was, however, reprimanded for using her first name (Canadian etiquette – formality to show respect). Isn’t world travel fun.

    • Dale permalink*
      October 27, 2010 16:18

      Fortunately most people seem to have become immune to mistakes with du/Sie, but not all. Thanks for the heads up on formality in Canada. Alas, I am so imprinted by my American upbringing that it is hard for me to adapt. In general, I adhere to the principle of reciprocity. If someone refers to me by first name, I respond in kind; if they use my last name, then I do the same, unless I am the older person or the one in the position of power and it falls to me to make things less formal. What cracks me up in US academia are all of the professors who insist on being called Professor so and so and yet refer to their students as Sarah, Bill, and Erica.

  15. Chris Neufeld permalink
    December 20, 2010 07:14

    The German is my first language so I’ve been fluent in German but I don’t live in Germany. Indeed, I am ethnic German Paraguayan. Of
    Course I do visit in Germany. I don’t understand why use they most “Sie” since a decade ago. I always say “Du” including question or answers to everyone but it wasn’t offensive languages. Have SPD education influenced to German citizen to change a social word from “Du zu Sie” Must they say “Sie”, it means you, not they?? Why? Because “Sie” is a formal word for respect, neutral or non-discrminaton. It effects to change culture than traditional language. Ive read my favorite comic in German “Lustiges Taschenbuch” until I annoyed about they use “Sie” to say which is a formal word. Unlike English language. They traditionally use “you” between person-to-person but not “they”. “Sie” will between person-to-person, it makes NO senses. I convince to German people to use “DU” for person-to-person to communicate because of original traditional language.

  16. Elliot permalink
    December 5, 2011 16:26

    As an American, I honestly have a problem Siezing anyone who wants to duzt me. Even though I’m less than 18, I always wait for the other person to use Du or Sie, and use the same to them. Although I might be in Germany, I’m still an American and my culture believes that all people are equal, including children. So I will never accept du and give Sie. Are German children expected to do this?

    • December 5, 2011 22:55

      Good question, Elliot. I’ve always wondered that myself, not having been raised in Germany as a native speaker. I tend to agree that one should respond to du with du, in any setting.

    • Rolf Viehmann permalink
      July 15, 2012 09:28

      Yes, there’s a difference between children and grown-ups regarding Du and Sie in German.

      The theory is: Children are always called “Du”, never “Sie”, but they still have to follow the social rules regarding “Sie” and “Du”. So if a child would go shopping with it’s mother or father, a person in a store would use “Du” when addressing the child, and “Sie” when addressing the mother or father, but the child has to call the (grown up) store personnel “Sie”, never “Du”. If a child does not follow this etiquette, this would be called “schlechte Kinderstube” in German (“bad upbringing”). Also, all school children always have to say “Sie” to their teachers and are always called “Du” by them, reminding them of the fact that society does not yet regard them as fully grown up persons. The same goes for any authority, for example, children would never use Du to address a police person, or a priest or nun.

      On a university campus, the professors use Sie when addressing the students (and the other way round), but in most other cases, “Du” is considered perfectly normal (for example, most professors use Du when discussing with each other if they have worked together for a while). The students on campus never use “Sie” when addressing other students.

      In practice, the rules are not followed really strict any more, probably from influences from the many languages where there is no separate “Du” and “Sie”. In more formal contexts, most people would follow the rules as good as they know them, but in more informal settings, ignoring the rules is not a really big deal. Especially, if the person speaking does not speak German as his/her mother language, most Germans would not mind an inappropriate “Du”. Also, I have the impression that the more positive a person’s attitude towards other persons is, the more often he/she will use “Du” whenever it is acceptable. So Du could be interpreted as more informal, “cool”, positive, pragmatic, and open.

      Also, I have the impression that the more similar two grown ups are (for example, similar in age, similar in political views, similar in power, similar in educational level, …), the more likely it is that they will simply use Du in a reciprocal manner without hesitation, quickly creating some “we” feeling. Same goes for persons sharing a similar fate that both suffer from (for example, two patients in a hospital that share a room for quite a while).

      What makes matters more difficult is that the 2. person singular is “Du” versus “Sie”, but the 2. person plural is “Ihr” versus “Sie”, so “Sie” can address a single person or a group of persons. Also “sie” (notice the lower case “s”) is also used as 3. person singular for female persons, and also as 3. person plural for groups of persons that can be of any gender (or also mixed). So the word “Sie/sie” can be used in four different cases. It’s sometimes driving me nuts, even though German is my mother language.

      What I don’t really know for sure is how the proper calling would be if you want to use the 2. person plural, and you would use “Du” for some of the persons if addressed individually, and “Sie” for others. “Sie” would be formal, and “Ihr” would be informal, but what is more appropriate?

  17. Matt permalink
    September 2, 2012 00:53

    I am a German teacher here at a Community College in Mesa Arizona. One of my students asked which is used to address in laws…what has your (native speakers) experience been?

    • September 4, 2012 09:35

      Well, I’m not a native speaker, and don’t have German in-laws, but I would suspect that many of the same rules would apply. If the spouse’s family is formal/old school, then start with Sie, otherwise go with du. In reality, I don’t think this would be much of an issue, since the spouse would mediate the whole issue, and if one used Sie these days with relatives, I think that within minutes they’d offer du.

    • Peter permalink
      February 16, 2013 08:10

      When first meeting your future in-laws I’d strongly recommend to use Sie. Then stay with this practice until they offer the Du. Normally they will have done this quite a while before it comes to the actual marriage. However, though it will be considered somewhat strange by most Germans, there might always be some people at least, who insist on the Sie even then. This might be seen as an indication, that they are not too happy with the choice of their offspring. ;-)

  18. February 16, 2013 12:47

    As someone from Munich I was thinking you mixed up Berlin and Munich in your graph.
    I’m actually unsure how to sort this out. In Bavaria in general you’ll often be called Du by local people, and even more often it’s ihr/euch if you’re multiple persons and you’re in a shop or restaurant (not the fancy ones) – often when the speakers are Bavarian and not just German ;) This is with people you didn’t even get to know yet.

    I’ve only been to Berlin once, but my impression was that Sie is much more commonplace in the north and they even react kind of startled if we call them Du in Bavaria.

    But yes, this is mostly a special case and not for “getting to know people you maybe don’t want to confuse/annoy”.

    • March 13, 2013 09:23

      And the whole chart is meant to be taken very tongue in cheek, i.e.- as humour.

  19. March 13, 2013 02:52

    could you give me some examples of when to use ‘du’ and when to use ‘sie’ informal and formal :)

    • March 13, 2013 09:23

      Hmm, that’s not easily done. I would recommend that you consult a good teacher.

  20. May 8, 2013 05:17

    My strategy is to jumble du, sie Ihnen, dich etc. in the first few lines, then explain I have trouble with this particular line of grammar (I do) and whether I may just continue with “du”. Germans are nearly always polite and gracious enough to be fine with this, then find it hard to answer formally when adressed informally. Which means I´m on a “Du” basis with a few people I really shouldn´t. Which has had its rewards…

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