Talking to German People Properly: Formal and Informal Speech
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 and du
Sie or du? Both mean “you”, but du is for your friends and family – and also children and pets. Sie is for 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 Sie.
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.
Even though aristocracy ended in the German speaking areas in the early 1900s, the idea of respecting authority and social hierarchy still persists. 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 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.