Tuesday, March 17, 2009

You can say you to me

One problem for people who learn the German language, coming from an English speaking background, is the usage of the "Du" and the more formal "Sie" when speaking to a person.

Germany is not the only country in Europe where you have this difference, but every country has other rules which aren't always easy to learn and are changing constantly.

I have lived and worked in Italy where the "Tu" is used much more easily than the formal "Lei" and the general trend is really that you use the informal form much more than in Germany.

General rule of thumb - if the person is older than you are, use "Sie". If you meet people for the first time and it is not a leisure situation like sports or friends who are presenting you to other friends, use Sie. If the person addresses you with "Sie", do the same. If you are not sure, use "Sie", even if it is somehow wrong in the situation, it is better because people will tell you to use "Du" and the first name. On the other hand nobody will tell you, not to use "Du" if it isn't appreciated because they don't want to offend you and refrain from telling you because you are a stranger and probably don't know the difference. Best practice is also to avoid any decision and to wait how the other person starts the conversation with you. It takes some time to get used to the practice and and develop a feeling for the situation.
If people start formal, they may switch to informal afterwards. If there is a large age difference, it is always the older person who makes the suggestion. Sometimes this can also happen after years and it feels awkward to change after such a long time.

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