Sie or Du: How to Address a German Properly

Sie or Du: How to Address a German Properly

For a non-native speaker learning German, understanding when to use the formal ”Sie” form or the more intimate ”du” is not just about grammar but also about respecting cultural norms and building relationships.

Our article delves into this integral part of German society and culture, offering insights and guidelines to help navigate these forms of address with confidence and cultural sensitivity.

Talking to German People Properly: Formal and Informal Speech

In German, like in many other European languages, there are two ways to say ‘you’: the formal and polite ”Sie” and the more familiar ”du”.

As I said in the introduction, for those learning the language, especially native English speakers, it can be tricky to figure out when to use each form.

In English, “you” is just “you” – whether formal or informal. It’s great for when you don’t know your relative social status or want to make a point of equality; however, a lot of languages make a distinction between people, and encode social status and considerations into the language itself.

German is one of these languages. Here are two of the most important examples: Sie or Du.

The “Sie” Form and the “Du” Form – A General Rule

Sie or du?

Both mean “you”, but the “du” form is the second person singular form used to address your close friends, parents, children and pets.

“Sie” is the formal version of “you” for your boss, colleagues, strangers, and everyone else – at least until you make friends with them. And even then, if you’re speaking to them in their professional capacity (such as talking to a professor or a teacher, lawyer or doctor), please use the ”Sie” form.

The relationship between a student and teacher is typically formal unless both sides agree on a different approach. In higher education, the formal ‘Sie’ is commonly used, with students addressing their lecturers and professors formally, and the lecturers and professors doing the same in return.

As a non-native speaker, if you are not sometimes sure which form is expected, it’s best to wait and let your German counterpart take the initiative in transitioning from formal “Sie” to informal “du”.

“Sie” vs “sie”

As we said, ”Sie” with a capital “S” is the formal way of addressing strangers and showing respect to someone in power or an older person. However, don’t mix it up with ‘sie’ (with a lowercase ‘s’), which is used to refer to a third person. The singular form of ”sie” means “she” and the plural form – “they.”

How do you know when to change from “Sie” to “du”?

It used to be that people would have get-togethers over schnapps to celebrate moving from Sie formalities to using du with each other.

It was a sign of intimacy – not necessarily the intimacy between married couples, but the intimacy of friendship, of knowing a person well. In fact, if you look in literature and in plays, the transition between “Sie” to “du” becomes a key plot point.

With social media being as popular as it is, though, do not be surprised if you see people using “du” on Twitter or on Facebook.

That seems to be the trend across different languages – whether it is a function of the Internet or an influence from other languages, such as English, remains to be seen.


Duzen or Siezen? Photo via Pixabay / Unsplash

Addressing Family Members

In German families, the way people talk to each other is pretty laid-back and warm. You’d use the ”du” form as a rule, regardless of age, showing the tight-knit bond in the family.

With family, age doesn’t really dictate how you speak to each other, unlike in more formal or public scenarios. Whether you’re chatting with adults or younger members, the same familiar form is used.

You can also hear pet names such as ‘Schatz’ (treasure) or ‘Liebling’ (darling), which Germans use to show affection to each other.

Social Class and Titles

Even though aristocracy ended in the German-speaking areas in the early 1900s, the idea of respecting authority and social hierarchy still persists until the present day. Therefore, if the person you are speaking to has earned a professional title, it is good German manners to address them using that title.

Your Dr Schmidt is still going to be Dr Schmidt – she earned the doctorate or medical degree and has a degree of authority and knowledge in society.

To English speakers, this can seem overly formal, but in German culture it is just a way to respect the person who received that title. This goes when you are studying in Germany also – when in doubt of their official title, ask them what you should call them.

Academic ranks in Germany are very different than in the United States (or even the United Kingdom) and a professorship is a major career milestone: by law, depending on the area of Germany, it takes up to 5 years of service before an academic can use Professor as a title.

The Hamburger “Sie”

The ”Hamburger Sie” form is a unique mode of addressing someone by their first name while still using the formal ‘Sie’ (for example, “Frank, können Sie bitte kommen?”).

This form strikes a balance in communication situations where using the informal ‘Du’ feels too intimate, yet addressing someone by their last name feels overly distant.

The ‘Hamburger Sie’ is often found in asymmetrical relationships, such as between superiors and subordinates, where it might be used one-sidedly: the superior is addressed by their last name, and the subordinate by their first name.

However, its use is increasingly becoming mutual, particularly in companies and institutions that operate in international contexts with different cultures.

This approach allows for a respectful yet personal interaction, accommodating both formality and a degree of familiarity, which is especially valuable in diverse and global professional environments.

The Münchner “Du”

The ‘Münchner Du’ (or the so-called ‘Kassiererinnen-Du’) is a distinctive form of address in the German language, contrasting with the ‘Hamburger Sie.’ In the ‘Münchner Du,’ people are addressed informally using ‘Du’ but combined with their last name and a formal title, such as ‘Herr’ or ‘Frau.’

An example would be, “Frau Müller, weißt du, wie viel die Tomaten kosten?” This form of address blends informality with a touch of formality, offering a unique way of speaking that’s both personal and respectful.

This mode of address is notably different from the ‘Berliner Du,’ where one uses ‘Du’ combined with the family name but without a formal title, for example, “Gruber, mach mal das Fenster zu.”

German Verb Conjugation with “du,” “ihr” and “Sie”

German verb conjugation changes based on who you’re talking to, and it’s pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it.

Let’s look at how the verb ‘können’ (can) changes with ‘du,’ ‘ihr,’ and ‘Sie’ in the following phrases:

Kannst du mir helfen?

Here, ‘du’ is used for one person you’re familiar with. It’s like saying “Can you help me?” to a friend.

Könnt ihr mir helfen?

‘Ihr’ is for when you’re speaking to a group of people you know well. It can be used when asking a group of friends, “Can you guys help me?”

Können Sie mir helfen?

Here again, ”Sie” is the formal ”you” for either one person or a group. You’d use this in respectful or formal situations, like asking a stranger or a boss, “Can you help me?”

German vs Romance Languages

The use of formal and informal pronouns varies across Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, reflecting cultural nuances:


The distinction between ‘tu’ (informal) and ‘vous’ (formal) is strictly maintained in most French-speaking regions. ‘Vous’ is commonly used when meeting unknown adults and in formal contexts.

The transition from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’ is often a gradual, sometimes explicitly negotiated process. However, ‘tu’ may be used more readily among individuals sharing common social factors like student status.


‘Tu’ is the informal second-person singular pronoun, while ‘Lei’ (formally meaning “she”) is used as the formal address, always with third-person singular verb conjugation. ‘Lei’ is prevalent in formal settings and with strangers, implying a sense of distance.

In Italy, ‘tu’ is increasingly used towards strangers up to about 30 years of age. In educational contexts, ‘tu’ is generally used in schools, shifting to ‘Lei’ in universities.


The original use of ‘tú’ (informal) and ‘vos’ has evolved, with ‘tú’ now being the familiar form and ‘usted’ (formal) used for respectful address.

In Spain, the usage of ‘usted’ has been declining, especially among younger speakers who prefer ‘tú’ even in traditionally formal situations.

FAQs: “You” forms in the German language

In this section, I answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the familiar and polite forms of the German “you” in different contexts.

Is “Sie” polite in German?

Yes, “Sie” is the polite form of address in German. It is used to show respect, especially in formal settings or when speaking with someone you don’t know well.

What is the difference between “Sie” and “Ihr” in German?

“Sie” is the formal ‘you’ for both singular and plural forms and is used in formal contexts. “Ihr,” on the other hand, is the informal ‘you’ in the plural form, used when talking to a group of people you are familiar with.

Is Sie masculine or feminine in German?

The “Sie” form is gender-neutral. It can be used to address a person of any gender in a formal context. It’s the context, not the gender, that determines its use.

What is the difference between “ihr” and “sein”?

“Ihr” is a pronoun meaning ‘your’ (informal plural) or ‘you all.’ “Sein,” however, is a possessive pronoun meaning ‘his’ or ‘its,’ and also a verb meaning ‘to be.’

The two are used in different contexts: “ihr” for addressing or referring to a group informally, and “sein” for indicating possession or existence.

Summing Up: Sie or Du – How to Address a German Properly

In conclusion, the art of addressing someone in German with the ‘Sie’ form or ‘Du’ extends far beyond mere words; it’s a gateway into the heart of German culture and etiquette.

For non-native speakers, mastering this aspect of the language is crucial, as it not only aids in effective communication but also shows respect for the intricate social customs of German society.

By appreciating these subtleties, language learners and cultural enthusiasts alike can forge deeper connections and gain a more profound understanding of the German way of life.

If you’d like to sound like a native German, then start one of our language courses at SmarterGerman today!