When to use informal and formal German
Published on June 18, 2019 / Updated on November 7, 2022
Germans have a reputation of being serious and quite reserved, which you can also see in the language… and what shall I say?! In this case, the cliché is correct. The Scandinavians, for example, deliberately ignore their formal “you” or they keep it reserved for their royals. The English don’t even have to bother thinking, even if they accidentally run into the Queen on their way back home from the pub; it’s you-case closed. The Germans, on the other hand, make a point of using the formal Sie or the informal du according to the situation and their counterpart.
Do I have you shivering and sweating in front of the computer now, because you think you’ll never be able to address someone formally enough and already see yourself in some serious trouble with your neighbor, your boss, or some random German at the bus stop? Don’t worry! It is actually not that hard to understand.
The good news is: Sie is a 2-in-1 deal. You can use it for one person as well as a group of people that you want to address formally.
For example, the concierge at Hotel Adlon in Berlin would say into my or my three other girlfriends’ glowing eyes:
“Zu Brad Pitts Hotelzimmer müssen Sie den Aufzug nehmen.” (To Brad Pitt’s hotel room, you have to take the lift.)
Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are rather uncommon. The formal German Sie is mostly used among colleagues and when you talk to elderly people or people you don’t know.
As you can see, the relationship between you and your counterpart is the key criterion for your choice of pronoun.
If in doubt, you should preferably use Sie. This way, you show your respect for the other person. Later on, they can still offer you the du.
Du is used among friends and when you to talk to children or family members. My dearest mum, for example, always asks me:
“Geht’s dir gut? Du bist so blass!” (Are you okay? You look so pale!)
And I say:
“Nein Mama, du müsstest langsam wissen, dass das meine normale Hautfarbe ist…” (No mum, you should know by now, that this is my normal skin colour…)
But when one of our great Lingoda teachers wants to address the whole group at the end of a class, they have to say:
“Meine Lieben, ihr müsst eure Lingoda-Hausaufgaben machen!” (My darlings, you have to do your Lingoda homework)
…because du is used for just one person. But if there are several people you talk to in an informal situation, the pronoun of choice is ihr.
But, as always, there are exceptions. In my beautiful hometown, Berlin, we are a bit more relaxed when it comes to formality. Here, the big Start-up culture might have had its influence on our manners.
In these companies, the employees use du – even to address their CEO! In public we also address unknown people using du or ihr.
Therefore, in a café, I’d ask the waiter:
“Kannst du mir meinen Matcha-Mocaccino mit Soja-Milch machen, bitter? “(Could you please prepare my Matcha-Mocaccino with soy milk?)
Speaking of cities…
What do these have to do with the topic? well, a lot.
These two cities are important, because sometimes, the Germans get wild: They open the first button of their well-ironed shirt, loosen their tie a bit and say things like:
“Lukas, könnten Sie bitte das Fenster öffnen?” (Lukas, could you –formal-open the window, please?) or “(Frau) Meier, kannst du mal kommen?” (Mrs. Meier, can you –informal– come over here?).
But why? Why confuse non-natives even more?!
Because they can – ha harrr!
No, sorry, just kidding.
The first option, first name and Sie, is known as the Hamburger Sie. It is used between colleagues, when du would be too intimate, but Sie too reserved. Also teachers use it when their long-time students turn 18 and the teacher wants to acknowledge their adulthood.
The second form is known as the Münchner Du. You will come across this combination mostly in shops and supermarkets.