The Enigma of the German “Sie”

For anyone who has learned a foreign language, the sympathy will most likely be inevitable. You will recognize that feeling of having to make constant choices while speaking, not really sure if the one you just made was the best. You will know what it means to wait for social cues, for that very slight raise of the eyebrows, for the almost imperceptible turning of the mouth (either up or down), or the dreaded blank look.

I find the blank look by far the worst response to a, in my case, German faux pas. It is that moment when I say something in this language that has become my daily one and I notice it in the eyes of the person with whom I am speaking – the blankness. The sinking feeling in my stomach rises, as I backtrack quickly in my thoughts: what have I just said? Sometimes I realize my mistake, can laugh, make some joke and all is forgotten. But often enough I have stood searching my thoughts and the faces around me for some clue as to what mistake I have made. And then we stand there, the person I have in some way offended and I, awkwardly both trying to act like the mistake has not just happened.

The best example is the use of the formal “you” in German. English speakers should consider themselves lucky that they do not, on a daily basis, need to decide who needs to be addressed formally and whom informally. Many languages have a word system that differentiates between familiar persons, strangers and persons of respect. My Japanese sister-in-law has told me that there are about eight ways to address someone formally in the Japanese language, depending on what degree of respect that person deserves. Thankfully I only have to struggle with one. Trust me, it’s enough.

When learning German in school, the rules seemed easy enough. For family, friends or people your age, you use the informal “you” or “du” form. When addressing older individuals, strangers or acquaintances, remember to use the respectful form of “you”, that is “Sie”. Simple enough. And for school book exercises like, “Franz, woher kommst du?” (Franz, where are you from?” or Herr Schmidt, woher kommen Sie?” (Same question, but please note the changed form of the verb “kommen” and the use of “Sie”.), it is easy. When there is a “Herr” or “Frau” (Mr. or Mrs.) in front of a name, you use the formal.

Unfortunately for me real life use of the “Sie” in Germany is much more complicated. In fact Germans are often incapable of saying exactly when it is appropriate or not. When I first came to Enkenbach I assumed in a church congregation, as we are all “brothers and sisters in Christ”, that I could in good conscience address everyone with “du”. And that is exactly what I did. No one made a fuss about it because Germans are very forgiving when it comes to foreigners speaking their language. It wasn’t until I was married to a German from the community and who has known most of these people his entire life that I noticed something seemed a bit strange. Individuals whom I freely addressed as “du”, Patrick often wouldn’t. It’s not that he immediately said “Sie, Herr so and so”, but he certainly would not say, “Du, Franz…”.

“Patrick,” I asked, “why aren’t you saying “du” to them? It’s weird if I’m calling them by their first names and you aren’t, especially because you’ve known them since you were a kid!”

“Yeah, it is strange, but I can’t just say “du” to them. When I was a kid, we always said “Sie” to the adults, and I can’t just change now.”

“But Patrick, you’re an adult too. Why not?”

“Because you just don’t do that.”

Huh? This was not exactly the clear-cut answer I was used to from my German school books.

And then he added, “They’ve never offered me the “du”.

Ah yes, the ceremonial offering of the “du”, like a sacrifice offered up to the formality gods. As I have discovered over the years, this can be done by simply offering a hand and saying something like, “Patrick, you’re an adult now, why don’t you call me Franz,” which would automatically mean that the “du” comes along with it. Sometimes this offering is literally done in a ceremonious way, called “drinking brotherhood”. Both individuals have a glass in his right hand (usually filled with something alcoholic, this is however not an absolute requirement). This hand is then wrapped around the arm of the other individual so that both parties take a drink out of her own glass, but uncomfortably as if while playing Twister. And with that drink, both individuals can officially call each other by their first names and say “du”.

By now, you would think, after being almost thirteen years in Germany, I have got this informal/formal “you” thing down pat. With my many years of formal German training, along with years of daily experience, I am capable of saying in all situations what the appropriate form of address is. Let me give you a few examples of true situations I have found myself in:

  • We have a lovely vegetable / fruit store in our little town run by a family that is from Enkenbach. Although our children are not together in any school classes, the woman from the store (and mother of these gorgeous children) and I see each other regularly as the store, yes, but also at our children’s swim practices, on the way to kindergarten (pre-school) or elsewhere. On this particular day in question, the sun was shining, I was feeling confident, the vegetables looked scrumptious, and so I asked “Du have another little girl at home, right?” Immediately I felt my mistake. The awkward pause, the twitching of the eyebrows. “Um yes.” She was very polite, but I became instantly aware that I overstepped some boundary. For me she was “just” another mom around town, which made the informal seem acceptable. But to her I was a customer to be treated with respect. She was acting appropriately; I obviously had not. We finished our exchange, I bought those lovely vegetables, and I left, aware that the sun was no longer shining as brightly as before. I made a vow to myself, never to make the same mistake again. No matter if mother or not, store people are to be addressed with the formal “Sie”!
  • That same week I was at the local farmer’s store where I am always giddy because of his self-grown products for sale. The woman that works there in the morning I am familiar with because she is a friend of a friend, but on this particular morning, I reminded myself of my vow and knew I would not make the same mistake again. “Hallo! Sie are working this morning! How are you (Sie) doing?” And there it was – the blank look. She looked at me with such a question mark stamped across her face, I could not help but realize that yet again, I had made a mistake. She was obviously (and understandably) perturbed and went about her business now with a colder pretence. My stomach dropped and my shoulders sagged as I meekly finished my shopping, hoping I hadn’t ruined all my future trips back to the store.

After taking a survey of many German friends and family members how exactly they deal with the question of when to use the formal or informal, I have come to the conclusion that I am not alone in my quest to solve this enigma. It seems no one really understands the rules. When I asked a good friend and excellent orator his thoughts on the matter, he chuckled loudly, shook his head and said, ” Ah yes, the German Sie.” And left it at that.

I guess there isn’t much left to say, except to ask,

“Was denken Sie?” or “Was denkst du?” (What do you think?)


About doralynelle

A would-be writer, stay-at-home mother of three, I find joy in the smallest things, love to laugh and can be super grumpy. Reading, writing, yoga and running are my favorite free-time activites, although enjoying a nice red wine is pretty high on the list too. Living in Germany as an American gives me lots to think about and certaintly to write about.
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6 Responses to The Enigma of the German “Sie”

  1. Johannes says:

    Die Erkenntnis, dass es selbst für Deutsch-Muttersprachler alles andere als einfach ist, trifft genau zu. Ein Problem ist tatsächlich das von Patrick beschriebene: Wenn aus Kindern Erwachsene werden, was dann? Selten sind es die Erwachsenen, die dann die Verhältnisse klarstellen, so jedenfalls meine Erfahrung. Und ich selbst lasse dann zwar das “Tante / Onkel” weg (so weit kommt’s noch), aber das “du” erfordert doch ein gewisses Maß an Mut. Deshalb bleibt es oft bei der wunderbar unpersönlichen dritten (Nicht-)Anredeform “man”.
    Und noch eine Beobachtung: Mit einem Kind im Schlepptau werden die Dinge nicht einfacher. Das Kind wird von Fremden oder auch nicht so Fremden begrüßt, sogar nach dem Namen gefragt. Ich selbst bleibe oft ein Niemand, über den am besten noch in der dritten Person gesprochen wird. Meine Bitte: Können sich Eltern (wir sind doch alle ähnlich jung!), wenn sie sich treffen, nicht einfach auch duzen und sich ganz normal anreden, anstatt von “dem Papa” oder “der Mama” zu sprechen?

    • doralynelle says:

      Danke, Johannes!! (I’m going to write in English because I don’t want to publicly embarrass myself – with my written German, that is) I actually REALLY wanted to write about that “man” that you referred to. That is Patrick’s solution to any sort of problem with having to address someone – just don’t. This may be easy for Germans, although I have been witness to Patrick’s stumbling a bit too, it is a nightmare for non-native speakers. Seriously, I’m happy when I can get the correct gist of what I am trying to say across, but having to rethink the WHOLE thing, just so I don’t have to decide between “du” or “Sie”?! It’s just too much.
      Oh your comment is so perfect, Johannes! Your thoughts that all parents should just simply address each other with “du” are exactly mine and is precisly what got me into trouble (see example one above). I understand there are certain parameters for when it might not always be appropriate (like the store-owner), but it would certainly make life a lot easier. And funny enough, whenever a fellow parent address me with “Sie”, I sort of freak out and mumble something and basically run away. It makes me feel very uncomfortable! I guess that’s how the “blank stare” feels from the other side!

  2. Rachel says:

    Yes, Dora! Some simple, yet hard & fast rules here would help tremendously. I always found there were no models (in movies I looked for the moment that Sie became Du) for the transformation.

    And I was even criticized for “offering the du” to someone that someone else thought wasn’t appropriate. Gah!

    • doralynelle says:

      Oh Rachel, hilarious! I thought I might hit a nerve with this topic because seriously, anyone who has tried to speak German has to have a story involving “du” and “Sie” in her back pocket. I think dubbed movies are always annoying because there IS NO transformation. The characters are ALWAYS per “Sie” until they kiss. And then, and only then does it change. German movies are much better done and often even add to the storyline by showing the process how the characters evolve from “Sie”ers to “du”ers.

  3. JFehr says:

    Luther said: “Sin boldly”. (At least that’s the English language citation of him, which I’ve never run across in German.) But I think it’s appropriate here. We as Ausländer (foreigners) are in fact judged less rigidly than Germans judge each other, and I use this advantage brazenly! Especially in southern German, I’ll ignore the “frozen stare” you talk about and try to overwhelm the shocked recipient of my “du”.
    But I also DO want to emphasize that the du/Sie distinction has real advantages. I kinda wish that we had it in English, so that I could keep certain persons at a distance.
    By the way, in her sermon in the televised church service on Sunday (ZDF), the pastor of the Menn. congregation in Weierhof didn’t say “du” (the way she usually does), but rather “Sie” because it was being televised for all those distant people. A friend of mine was aggravated by that. He told me today: She should have said “du”, since she was actually preaching to her own congregation. What do you think?

    • doralynelle says:

      Interesting question! Patrick automatically said, “ja, of course she has to say “sie!”, when I was just about to say, “yes, strange, I would have gone with the “du”. Maybe we foreigners will never understand….but I do like that you take advantage of your position as foreigner. We have a friend who always encourages me to do the same, but somehow I just feel uncomfortable with it. I guess I’m just not gutsy enough. Like you! 🙂

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