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1.3 "Sie" or "du?"

1. The German language has different ways of translating the English pronoun "you":

The familiar or informal form "du" is used when talking to relatives, close friends and children.
It does not start with a capital letter.
The plural of "du" is "ihr".
The formal form "Sie" is used when you need to be more polite.
It is the usual form of address when talking to an adult whom you don't know well or at all.
A child would always say "Sie" to an adult outside his or her own family.
"Sie" always starts with a capital letter.
The plural form of "Sie" is also "Sie".

Shake hands!2. Whether to use "Sie" or "du" can be a terrible dilemma for native and non-native speakers alike. It is quite possible for two neighbours to live next door to each other for decades and still call each other "Herr X" or "Frau Y" and refer to each other using "Sie"!

It is equally possible for two colleagues to work in the same office all their life and still call each other "Sie" and not be on first name terms. As the "Sie" form carries with it great respect, it thus remains the norm amongst employees, although there is a growing trend towards work colleagues being on first name terms with each other and as a consequence using the "du" form.

When meeting someone in a work environment, you should always use "Sie". The inappropriate use of "du" to someone in a position of authority in a German-speaking country can appear disrespectful and cause a great deal of offence. When getting to know new friends and colleagues, it is advisable to wait for the German speaker to ask you to address them with "du", which should then be interpreted as an offer of friendship.

Guten Tag!3. In other areas of social interaction however, you will be expected to use "du", and may be seen as being cold and aloof if you do not.

University students invariably call each other "du" even when they're meeting for the first time, as do members of certain other groups which place a high value on solidarity (e.g. blue-collar workers, soldiers, sportsmen).

How are you?
The choice between "du" and "Sie" is not just one of social niceties. It also affects the grammar of a sentence - and verb endings in particular. Even an apparently simple construction like "How are you" needs to be remembered in three ways:

  Pronoun How are you?
"Wie geht es Ihnen?"
"Wie geht es dir?"
(informal plural)
"Wie geht es euch?"

Information1. You will discover in subsequent chapters that "Ihnen", "dir" and "euch" are the dative forms of "Sie", "du" and "ihr". "Wie geht es Ihnen / dir?" literally means: "How goes it for you?"

2. In all three of the above contexts, you might also use "Wie geht's?" ("How are things?"). This phrase neatly sidesteps the issue of whether you should refer to the person to whom you are talking as "du" or "Sie", although it is a quite informal greeting.

Weiter!Chapter 1.4: Conversation: Meeting and Greeting

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