A few years ago, on the eve of a trip from Berlin to Bavaria to meet my boyfriend’s four grandparents, father, father’s wife, and several step-siblings for the first time, I asked a couple German friends for advice on using informal versus formal forms of German address. Specifically, I wanted to know whether I should start out my stay with the more formal Sie form, and then gradually transition to the familiar du as we all got to know each other better. And furthermore, how would I be able to tell when we were officially familiar enough to make the switch?
The only clear and simple answer was to use du with the step-siblings who, like us, were in their twenties or at the cusp of 30. For everyone else, confusion reigned. My friends advised me to play it safe and start with the Sie form of address as a sign of respect before moving on to the du form. Okay, great, when would that be? We don’t know. Nobody knows.
Du, Ihr, and Sie: The Three Forms of Address
There are three ways in German to directly address a person or persons — du (singular familiar), ihr (plural familiar), and Sie (single and plural formal). At its most basic, the rule is to use the first two for children and people you know well, and Sie with adults you don’t.
Here, for example, are three different ways to ask for help. (And when it comes to making the Sie and du switch, you’re probably going to need it.)
- Kannst du mir helfen?
Can [familiar, singular] you help me?
- Könnt ihr mir helfen?
Can [familiar, plural] you help me?
3. Können Sie mir helfen?
Can [formal, singular or plural] you help me?
When Can I Switch From Using the “Sie” Form to the “Du” Form?
But German isn’t simple, and neither is the nuance around making the switch from Sie to du, particularly when the question, ‘How well do we know each other?’ is subjective. Rest assured, it isn’t easy for Germans, either. My pals heartened me before my trip with tales of entire life-long friendships spent wondering whether the moment had yet come to start using the familiar address with their friends’ parents.
An older acquaintance once told me his husband’s conservative parents were accepting of their gay son and partner. But du? They couldn’t do it. A decade into marriage, his husband exploded over a family board game, imploring his elderly parents to finally quit addressing their son-in-law with the Sie German form. (Happily, they agreed.) At least the transition, however late in coming, was clear for all involved!
Finally, what about everyday instances like ordering food in a restaurant? Play it safe — if the waitstaff at a restaurant is your age or younger, feel free to use du. If they’re a bit older, it’s okay to switch to Sie. If you’re unsure, default to the more polite form. The worst that can happen is you come off as a bit stiff.
While you analyze where you stand on the Sie to du spectrum with your various German elders, let’s turn to the workplace. Some offices can feel quite familiar, with colleagues addressing one another using du and each other’s first names.
Max, hast du den Vorschlag geschrieben?
Max, did you write the proposal?
However, some workplaces remain formal, using both Sie German and last names.
Herr Müller, haben Sie den Vorschlag geschrieben?
Mr. Müller, did you write the proposal?
Other Options: The “Hamburger Sie” and the “Müncher Du”
Whether it’s the informal or formal German, either workplace address is clear. In other instances, you may also encounter two further office Sie and du forms that seemingly make no sense. However, each establishes a middle ground between familiarity or formality.
First, the so-called Hamburger Sie. In this form, you’d still use Sie German and the appropriate conjugations, despite addressing your colleagues by their first names. Achieving the same middle ground via the opposite tack is the Münchner Du. Here, colleagues familiar with one another have transitioned to du and associated conjugations, yet continue to call one another Herr X and Frau Y. As a full-time freelancer, I’ve never experienced either the Hamburger Sie or the Münchner Du, but I’m aware that my partner’s father’s company uses the latter. They’re located just outside Munich, so as far as the name goes, that checks out.
A tip — you may also hear the Münchner Du called the Kassiererinnen-Du, as shop and grocery store employees often address one another using surnames plus du, like this:
Herr Müller, weißt du, wo die Milch ist?
Mr. Müller, do you know where the milk is?
When In Doubt, Match Duzen For Duzen And Siezen For Siezen
Back to the convoluted intersection of German elders who are also familiars. Did I wind up mastering the great Sie to du switch in Bavaria? I thought so, but consistent with my experience with the German language, I thought wrong. After that first trip to the country’s south, du German territory was quickly established with my partner’s maternal grandparents — we stay overnight at their house, eat all our meals together, and they get upset if I go outside with wet hair. On the other hand, after a few years of getting to know the other set of grandparents mainly over planned instances of Kaffee und Kuchen, I realized I had merely lulled myself into a false sense of du security.
Sie duzen mich, aber ich sieze sie.
You are addressing me with you [familiar], but I am addressing you with you [formal].
…So announced my partner’s paternal grandfather as we all enjoyed a blueberry tart. I think we’d known each other for about four years at that point. The first time we met, he’d more or less ordered Thomas to marry me. Listen, don’t let flattery lead you astray from formal German — it’s no substitute for true familiarity. He was using Sie with me, yet I had switched to du with him, and he had zero compunction noting our imbalance in forms of address. At least that day I learned two new-to-me verbs: duzen (to address with du) and siezen (to address with Sie).
During the post-cake debriefing with Thomas, two key details cut through the brain freeze of embarrassment. First, his grandmother had long been using du German with me (when she doesn’t just switch and speak to me in English). And wait! Hadn’t his grandfather and I already made the transition to du during one of the other instances of Kaffee und Kuchen past? Yes. Well, apparently we’d switched back, and I’d missed the memo.
Sie and du — even if you were once in the right, you may suddenly find yourself yet again in the wrong. So just listen, and match duzen for duzen and siezen for siezen.