Back to school! After much deliberation, I decided to start taking intensive German language classes once more in Stuttgart. I’m in the final C1 level and hope this will be the last German class I take for a while. As with my previous classes, my classmates are from all over the world – Iran, Russia, Croatia, China, Japan, Columbia, El Salvador, Mexico, the USA, Syria, Italy, and France. I am once again the only Canadian. At least I’m not the only native English speaker anymore! (I was always the token ‘English translator’ in my previous classes which made me very uncomfortable. Having fifteen faces and thirty ears pointed at you all at once waiting to hear your accent can have a speech-debilitating effect, even if it is your native language).
Now, to explain the title of this post, Du vs. Sie. In German, as in many languages, there is both a casual form and a formal form used to address someone. In English, we say ‘you’ whether you’re talking to your brother, friend, grandma, teacher, baby, or Prime Minister. This is not the case in German. The basic rule is that you say ‘du’ (the casual form of ‘you’) to your close friends, family members, children to about the age of 16, or pets. Otherwise, you say ‘Sie’ (the formal form of ‘you’). In other words, you should address work colleagues, strangers, or people of a higher social status than yourself as ‘Sie’.
Ok, that’s no big deal, right? That’s easy enough to get used to, I’m sure you’re thinking. Well, it can be surprisingly difficult. Let me illustrate a few examples:
Example #1: Speaking with German classmates
There is a special case when you can address strangers as ‘du’; this applies to being a student. As I mentioned above, you would normally refer to strangers and people over the age of 16 as ‘Sie’. But when you are taking a class together, be it a university class or private German language class, you can refer to each other as ‘du’. It doesn’t matter if your classmates are 30 years older than you or hold a high position; if they are a student with you, they can be called ‘du’. As a rule, we called each other ‘du’ (referred to as ‘duzen’ in German) in my B1 and B2 classes (the teachers as well).
On my first day of C1 class, the student sitting next to me asked me, “Wie heißen Sie?” (ie. What’s your name?). I answered and just assumed she was being polite by using ‘Sie’ with me (referred to as ‘siezen’ in German). I then proceeded to call her ‘du’ during the rest of the class out of habit. I noticed that the teacher (in fact, the same one I’d had for B1 and B2) was now referring to everyone as ‘Sie’. I thought it was odd but just brushed it aside. After about 3 days of class, another student said he was feeling uncomfortable with the use of ‘Sie’ and could we just use ‘du’? The teacher said that now that we’re in C1 level, we should be getting into the habit of using ‘Sie’ since this is what we’ll likely encounter in our everyday lives. Good point, but I think it will take some getting used to!
Example #2: Meeting strangers in an informal setting
Most everyone I speak German with I address as ‘du’ – my husband, my in-laws, or my classmates. When I speak with strangers, they are often expats with whom I speak English. I seldom use ‘Sie’ unless I’m speaking with a store clerk, a bus driver or a stranger who asks me a question. I am a bit shy about speaking German, especially with strangers, so I don’t find myself using ‘Sie’ all that often.
A few months ago, I was invited to a friend’s backyard barbecue. She had invited some of her old neighbours and friends along whom I’d never met. Most of them only spoke German, so we spoke German together. When asked my name, I just answered with my first name (as I would say if asked in English). When S was asked his name, he said both his first and last name. I wondered why he gave his full name since we were at a backyard barbecue which I construed as a casual event. All of the other adults in attendance were at least 15 years older than us, though. As S was speaking with a man, he (S) referred to him as ‘Sie’ to be polite. The man suggested that S call him by his first name. This is important: Before you can start calling someone ‘du’, you must be officially ‘invited’ to do so. In Germany, this is a big deal and signals that you now have more than a superficial relationship with someone. Acquaintances can go for several years before being invited to be called by ‘du’, so it’s an important step in the relationship. Even though S had only known this man for one minute, he was invited to call him ‘du’. Why? I suppose because of the setting being an informal party. I should also clarify that with the invitation to use ‘du’, it is also an invitation to use the person’s first name (ex. Bertha instead of Frau Schmidt (ie. Mrs. Schmidt)). In learning this, I realize that S gave his first and last name so that man could call him Herr ________ (ie. Mr. _________) if he wanted to and not feel obligated to call him ‘S’, or ‘du’. Is your head aching yet?? When in doubt, always use ‘Sie’!
I have definitely embarrassed myself a few times by accidentally using ‘du’ with strangers. Once, a woman on the train dropped her glove and without thinking, I said “Dein Handschuh!” (ie. “Your glove!”). What I should have said was “Ihr Handschuh!” (ie. polite way of saying “Your glove!”) (Side note: Yes, the German word for ‘glove’ is translated as ‘hand shoe’. Awesome, huh?) So not only do you have to know when to use ‘du’ vs. ‘Sie’, you need to know all the pronouns that go with each one (personal pronouns, reflexive pronouns, etc.). I’m proud to say that I’m getting better. On Friday, some women on the train asked me for directions. Even though I babbled my way through giving directions (complete with monkey-like pointing and wide eyes), at least I remembered to use ‘Sie’. Point for me!