Trust me, even Germans get confused. Du or Sie is a tough nut to crack. And it entirely depends on the situation. So, let’s take a look at this with our step-by-step guide:
If you are unsure, always use “Sie” in combination with the surname. That works in every situation except if someone already offered to be on a “Du” basis with you. Then it is an absolute no-go as you insult the other person by trying to get back to the formal version.
How to get to “Du”: In general, only an older / more senior person can offer the “Du” to you. It generally means that the person considers you to be a friend, to be trustworthy, to try to get to know you on a personal level. Again, there is one tiny little problem attached. If your boss is younger than you then you are at a stalemate: You are older but your boss is more senior. Usually this is solved at an informal meeting such as a company party by one person addressing it directly.
If you meet people at a social gathering and you are introduced by mutual friends you usually can use the “Du” level directly. Again, except for one tiny rule: Parents are usually addressed as “Sie”, unless they offer you the “Du”. And make sure not to forget this rule when you are introduced to your boyfriend’s / girlfriend’s parents. Remember: the first impression is the most important.
And just to make your life a little more confusing people have started using a combined form taking the “Sie” and using it with the first name of the person. As “Du” in Germany indicates that the other person considers you to be more of a friend the “Sie” and the first name indicate trustworthiness / more than just acquaintance while keeping the relationship on a professional level.
So now that you know when to use what let’s take one final look at how to use “Du” and “Sie” correctly in the written form. “Sie” stays “Sie” with a capital S. “Du” is generally written “du” according to the new German spelling reform. You can still use the old capitalized “Du” version e.g. in letters. Especially older people feel that the capitalized version shows more respect towards the other person and therefore is the appropriate way.
Now you are all confused? No problem. Check out our German phrasebook with all the correct formal and informal titles.