When you first start learning German, it won’t be long before you realise that unlike English, there are 2 words for ‘you’ in German: Sie and du.
This can be a totally baffling concept for English speakers, but it’s a very important part of the German language and culture. After reading this post you’ll know:
- The key differences and uses of Sie & du in German
- Things to watch out for in the ‘grey area’
- How to make that changeover from Sie to du
Sie & Du: 2 Ways to Say ‘You’ in German
So you’ve probably already encountered the 2 words for ‘you’ in German, but let’s just do a quick recap of this opposite pair.
Sie is the formal version of ‘you’. It’s always capitalized, regardless of where it appears in a sentence. This is done to differentiate it between Sie (‘you’ formal), sie (‘they’, which is uncapitalized) and sie (‘she’, also uncapitalized). Of course this doesn’t help in spoken German because Sie and sie sound exactly the same.
Verb conjugation for Sie is actually really easy, since the verbs stay in their dictionary form, ending -en:
- Sie fahren
- Sie mussen
- Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
The other good thing about Sie is that you can use it as a formal singular and plural for ‘you’. So no matter whether you’re speaking to one person formally or multiple people formally, Sie works for both:
|Möchten Sie was bestellen?||Would you like to order something?|
|Möchten Sie was bestellen?||Would you (guys) like to order something?|
Du is the informal version of ‘you’. It’s verb conjugation ends -st, and sometime the vowel gains an umlaut or is changed. Verbs ending -st can be a bit tricky to pronounce.
- Du fährst
- Du musst
- Sprichst du Deutsch?
The informal ‘you’ does have a different version if you’re talking to a group of people informally, ihr. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but ihr has it’s own verb conjugation, ending -t:
|Was machst du?||What are you doing?|
|Was macht ihr?||What are you guys doing?|
Sie: Formal German Uses
Sie is the version of ‘you’ that you ought to start with. It is the formal way to say ‘you’ in German and it’s a good idea to use this as your default option. Like I said, using the correct ‘you’ is culturally important for German speakers, and although it might not seem like a big deal to English speakers, it really is.
As a rule, Sie is used with anyone you don’t know, just met, or anyone older than you. It’s used in all work situations until it’s decided otherwise (more on that later).
Situations where you might use Sie:
- With any customer facing staff (in restaurants, shops etc.)
- Asking for directions from a stranger
- Any work situations
- With older people
Du: Informal German Uses
Du is the informal version of ‘you’. When you first start learning German, you probably won’t use du that much unless you already have German speaking friends and family. As a rule, situations where you might use du:
- With friends, family and loved ones
- Speaking to children
- It’s often used on social media regardless of whether you’re speaking with a stranger
Young adults would usually say du to each other right from the first meeting. And adults would say du to children up until they get to around 16-18 years old, at which point the usual ‘Sie if you don’t know the person’ rule takes over,
The Grey Area: My Experiences with Sie & Du in German
My personal experiences with using the ‘yous’ in German is actually a bit backwards. Because I already had a lot of German friends before starting to learn German, my default was actually the informal ‘du’, since the only people I spoke to at the beginning were good friends.
It’s actually made using Sie for me a bit awkward, as I feel like a pretty informal person anyway in the way that I speak, using Sie feels a bit like I’m going for a job interview or something!
That being said, hanging around with a lot of Germans has given me a good insight into when to use Sie or du, and I’m always paying close attention to see which one they use in different situations.
I’ve heard German friends use ‘du’ immediately in trendy cafes with younger staff. It’s one of those things where, when you’ve grown up with it, and it’s so ingrained in your culture, you can just make an instinctive judgement call depending of the ‘feeling’ of a place. That doesn’t help us non-native German speakers I know!
Once you get better at speaking German and creating spontaneous sentences, you might even be able to word your phrases so that you avoid using Sie or du altogether (I’m very guilty of this myself!) The best thing to do however is to default to Sie and allow the native speaker to correct you…
How to Change from Formal to Informal German
That brings us nicely on to the rather odd (for us English speakers) procedure for changing from Sie to du in German. As a non native speaker this is best left to the person you’re talking to to decide. However there are a number of phrases you need to listen out for:
|Wollen wir uns duzen?||Do we want to use ‘du’?|
|Sie können gerne ‘du’ zu mir sagen.||You can say ‘du’ to me.|
This is an invitation to use ‘du’ with each other, and once you both make this agreement, you’re now on familiar terms and use ‘du’ from now on.
If you do slip up and use ‘du’ at an inappropriate moment, this is the phrase you’ll probably hear if the other person thinks it’s too soon to be on familiar terms:
|Ich würde gerne beim ‘Sie’ bleiben.||I would rather stay with ‘Sie’.|
|Wir sagen ‘Sie’ hier.||We say ‘Sie’ here.|
So I hope that’s cleared up the differences between Sie and du in German. Try not to get too stressed about it, use Sie as a default and remember that as a non-native speaker you’ll be forgiven and gently corrected if you make a mistake.