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The Sie-Du Thing

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!

Posted in Culture & Languages on August 6, 2005


21 Responses

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  1. Vikram says

    Surya,

    I don’t know any German, so I might be even more confused when I am in Berlin.

    Vikram

  2. Surya says

    If you dont converse in German, you wont have the issue. But from what I hear, North Germany is a little less stiff when it comes to this. Also, Berlin has more foreigners and thus should be more open and forgiving to foreigners’ mistakes.

    Are you staying here long term and learning German? – then the Sie Du thing sure will haunt you too at some point or the other..=)

  3. Vikram says

    Surya,

    Anyone who doesn’t know German hasto take a pretty rigorous conversational class once we get there. I hope it doesn’t haunt me too badly.

    Vikram

  4. Surya says

    Good Luck! Hope I dint scare you too much! =) If you work in an informal environment, shouldn’t be too bad.

  5. One More Reason says

    This reminds me of the “Aap” and “Tum” situation in Hindi. Luckily in Hindi, there is no rule 4. It is always safer to use Aap. Although using Aap between close friends does get a little weird.

    My Hindi isn’t great. I am more fluent in bumbaiyaa. No rules just speak.

  6. Surya says

    I guess Aap and Tum may be difficult for non-Hindi speakers or at least those not familiar with Indian culture.

    But one crucial difference is, in Hindi – Aap always shows respect. An elderly relative could address you as Tum, but you probably say Aap to him. In German, as far as I know, its reciprocal. As long as someone address you with Du, the same holds the other way round – regardless of age difference or anything else.

    And as you said, using Aap is always a safe way out. It doesnt necessarly mean aloofness or distance.

  7. Pleomorphous says

    I do not think English is more evolved because it does not have a respectful version of “You”. I would say it is convenient to have a single word, letting the tone do the talking (pun unintended).

    I used to translate sentences from English into Malayalam before I spoke them (not sure if I still do it). And the translation almost invariably sounded disrespectul when referring to elders.

  8. Surya says

    Why is it not evolution ? – its something that the language dropped because it was sort of vestigial. But you are right, it is indeed darn convenient.

    As far as I know, You is the respectful form. Thee was the informal version (see the closer phonetic resemblance to Du). So it was a case of inaccurate translation that got you into trouble =)

    Abt translatng English to Malaylam, the different versions of second person in Malayalam is even more confusing than in German. Even as a native speaker, I just conveniently find ways around using it, most of the time.

  9. Pramod says

    I understand your frustration with the situation. But I don’t think its that bad really. Its kind of same in France too (the two European languages I know, don’t know about Italian, Spanish, Finnish etc. for example)

    While it is true that forming sentences becomes difficult as words do change based on if you are using Sie or Du, other than that, once you get the gist of it – I found it quite ok.

    Yes we have to accept that Germans normally are more formal than say Americans (and then Indians – we seem to follow Americans in most of these things!) I know situations where while speaking in English – its on a first name basis, but shift to German it becomes a rather curt Herr. ABC with Sie.

    Ok, my experience is perhaps not PURE German – even though I live just about 1000m outside the German border.

    I think the situation is very similar to Aap and Tum in Hindi as pointed out earlier. And belive me its not really simple in Hindi. In many parts of Northern India – children are always addressed Aap. Mother Tum and Father Aap. And on top of that there is this confusing Mein and Hum. Remember the film QSQT?

    Well, don’t get so agitated and enjoy life :-)

    Just had a chance to meet Dalai Lama today, need to write about that experience, but looks like it will have to wait am off to India in 2 days….

  10. Leon says

    He Sie,

    Dank für vorbei stoppen..

    I know something about German now.. :D

  11. Surya says

    Hi Pramod,

    Havent seen you for a bit..good to see you aro!

    Yes we have to accept that Germans normally are more formal

    But sometimes they get unexpectedly informal and uses du. That throws me off and confuses me! Guess its a matter of getting used to it..

    Well, don’t get so agitated and enjoy life :-)

    Looks like the Dalai Lama had a profound influence on you =)

  12. Surya says

    Hi Leon,

    Welcome to the blog..!

    I am not sure you can actually address a person He Sie, but I understood your next line – so not a bad first attempt at a new language =)

  13. a.a says

    I know this is a little unrelated to the post, but I just wanted to tell you how much I love your wedding website. It’s a real labour of love. Its definitely inspiration fuel for mine. I think its simply marvellous.

    I was tickled to see that you’d come to aamchi Suisse for your honeymoon. The weather in Lucerne seems to be a little off, though normally it *is* quite pretty (sometimes a little too vanilla sweet for me, but what the heck, it’s pretty).

    About your post, for french (same country as Pramod, just in the french part) the rules are pretty simple, where you default ‘vous’ for everyone and switch over to ‘tu’ when they initiate it. Very similar to Hindi tum/aap.

    Aren’t you glad Malayalam isn’t that complicated ?:)

  14. surreal reality says

    I’ve actually had the same problem but stick to the “sie” unless Herr Kaufmann initiates a “wann kommst du?” thread.

    Its like how some people prefer a Dear Mr. Reality even after a long acquaintance while others start off with “Dear Surreal” from the offset.

    Ich liebe noch die Sprache.. :)

  15. One More Reason says

    Surya,

    I am sorry to go off topic. In one of my earlier posts you had pointed me to an article titled Down with trees in the Economist
    http://economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=4221504

    As I suspected, the article is incorrect . The magazine printed a correction for a part of the article. The other part isn’t any better either.

  16. Surya says

    Hi A.A,

    Thanks for your kind words! The real credit goes to Srijith, my contributions were limited to standing behind the chair and offering my two cents on alignments, colors etc and generally making a nuisance out of myself..

    Yes, I loved Lucerne..in fact, I think it was the city I liked best in Switzerland. Weather sucks all over this time, Germany is not any better..I need two jackets to get out and its summer!!

    And welcome to the blog! =)

  17. Surya says

    Hi One More Reason,

    Thanks for pointing it out..dint see the correction – I would have kept on believing that trees are not all that good afterall..

    Guess they probably knew it before they published,just that the wrong version made a better headline.

  18. Surya says

    Dear Surreal and Mr.Reality..LOL!!
    I will switch to these from now on..;o)

  19. Sathish Kumar says

    Hi du, :)

    It was a nice article written by you..
    Infact being a student in Germany..
    I find it very difficult to manage…Sie and du…I went to my Boss house once and I saw his child…
    i want to ask the child’s name…
    instead of asking Wie heisst du…
    I asked Wie heissen Sie…

    My boss laughed to the core…
    I enjoyed it too….
    Very very nice article…
    Keep writing…

    Regards,
    Sathish Kumar.
    Master Student in Hamburg University of Technology,Hamburg,Germany.

  20. Pradeep N. Nair says

    Your article provided some interesting reading about German language.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. German Joys linked to this post on August 29, 2005

    How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sie and Du

    Silent Eloquence has an amusing post on the distinction between the formal Sie and the informal du mode of address in German:I am convinced the only reason it exists is to confuse the hell out of non-Germans. I didn’t realise



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