I bet I am not the first foreigner to complain about the Sie – Du nuances of the German language. And I am convinced the only reason it exists is to confuse the hell out of non-Germans.
I didn’t realise what a pain it is, till now – I have finally reached a stage where I feel confident to try out meaningful conversations (beyond how are you and whats your name and have a good weekend) in German – and all of a sudden the Sie – Du conundrum looms large in the horizon. Its grammatically simple, really – it affects the verb declination a little bit,thats all. But the big question is – who do you use Du with and who do you use Sie with?
For the uninitiated, Sie and Du are like You and Thee (or the other way round, I don’t know). One is for peers (Du)and the other shows more respect and formality(Sie). Luckily for the English language, it was lost in its evolutionary process – its definitely the best thing English could have done for itself.
The simple rules of thumb which every German tells me is – for the first time, always use Sie, until the other person switches to Du. If you are on first name basis with people use Du, otherwise use Sie. Use Du for kids, always. And once you switch to Du, you never go back to Sie, because that would be a huge step backwards for your “relationship” – you are less close now.
Now heres what I have noticed about the rules of thumb:
(1)For the first time, always use Sie, until the other person switches to Du.
The other person? why the other person? Why cant I be the one to initiate? If each person thinks the other person will initiate the Du, we will forever be stuck in Sie, wont we?
(2) if you are on first name basis with people, use Du. otherwise Sie.
I am on a first name basis with everyone at work ( I find it weird to call colleagues Mr.X or Mrs.Y even when she is the CEO) and people reciprocate. Yet, some of them use Sie. Why oh Why? cant we stick to simple rules at least, please!
(3)And use Du for kids, always.
Now I don’t have to deal with any kids. So, this rule – as simple as it is – doesn’t help at all. On the other hand, I got an email from a complete stranger sometime back and he used a Du in the very first email! already! And this was even in a professional context. Now, I am confused. Does he think I am a kid? He cant expect me to know about credit risk management and think I am a child. So, what about the rules, buddy? Or are they just to confuse us poor foreigners.
(4) And once you switch to Du, you never go back to Sie.
This is the worst of the lot! I can never remember who I am on Du-terms with and who are in my Sie-book. See, theres no real logic to the Sie and Du, and they change over time, how the hell I am to keep track? I should carry two little red books with Sie and Du lists. Now, people can try to be in my Du books, instead of being in my good books! Wouldn’t that be cool!
Unless you live in Germany, you would probably think this is oh-so silly. I used to, too. But its very important here – people actually notice these things and think a big deal about them ( at least some of them – and you don’t know who these people are).
And I can’t believe, after plodding through so much vocabulary and grammar, this little thing is making me self-conscious about speaking in German. I wish Deutsch evolves too, like English, to have only one form of You. And that the evolution happens within the next couple of months!