“Are we using du or Sie?” A woman leaned over to me to ask this question this morning in an exercise class. “Du,” I answered. There was nothing remarkable about the exchange, and afterwards that woman used the information to address the teacher. But still, every time it happens, every time the concept of du vs Sie gets brought up in conversation here I am reminded that I live in Germany. It’s one of those little differences that has not faded into the background of my life.
The du versus Sie issue is one of great importance to anyone learning the German language for the first time. First you have to learn when to use them, and then you have to learn how to conjugate them. Neither is a simple task.
The short answer to the question “when do I use which form of you?” (as du is a formal, singular version of the English word “you,” while Sie is a plural formal version of the same) is that you use du in informal situations and Sie in formal situations. But what does that mean? What is formal and what is not varies hugely from person to person. Some people Siezt their bosses after 20 years of working together. Some offices have an all-du policy.
I belong to the category of people who use du pretty much all the time. It’s not that I can’t speak using the word Sie, it’s just that I don’t see the need for all that formality. Apparently, there’s even a name for this: Radikal Duzen. It gets me by just fine, and, to my knowledge, I’ve never offended anyone using it.
Kids are supposed to use Sie on adults, yet adults are allowed to use du on kids. When you’ve just met someone and instead of introducing him or herself as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so, gives you his or her first name, this is code for “you can now use du with me.”
And what about at the store? You can generally duzt the woman at the checkout counter in the supermarket or the man at the electronics store without offending him or her. But most people wouldn’t, and someone working at a store will most certainly use Sie on you if you haven’t dropped the du-bomb first. Some people will use Sie to insult you (as in a close friend giving you the cold shoulder) and some people will use du to insult you (refusing to give you the more respectful title). It’s a complicated world of due and Sies out there, and there’s nothing for it but experience.