My German Skills at 25 Years: Formal and Informal “You”

One of the weirdest things for Americans learning German is to know how to say “you.”  Like a number of languages, German has a formal and informal way of saying you, i.e.  the informal “du”, and the Formal “Sie.”  Americans have an aversion to acknowledging social distinctions, which spills into you we think about those we talk with.


I started learning German in 1987 after marrying a German.  It has been a slow haul for my German learning—mostly in the company of family, and friends of my wife.  For more formal situations, I typically hid behind my wife (no I don’t want to go the immigration office by myself!), and later my children.  The end result is that most of my German has been learned in “du” circumstances where the relationship was “pre-negotiated” by my wife. I managed to generally avoid using “Sie” and certainly the awkward moment when the elder person is supposed to propose that the conversation switch from “Sie” to “du.”  In the few circumstances were I did it, it felt really awkward.


My colleagues at the university also saved me from such a situation—they speak English, which is an immediate out for dealing with a foreigner like me.


So it is with some pride, that I can now report that after 25 years, I am becoming more comfortable with “Sie.”  Our current stay in Germany started in September and I think I have finally become a bit comfortable with being referred to as “Sie” and responding in kind.  I even negotiated a switch from the formal “Sie” to “du” in my German class, a process I had to initiate since I am older than my fellow students.


Now, if I could only figure out the more complex German verbs, I would have real progress!

2 thoughts on “My German Skills at 25 Years: Formal and Informal “You”

  1. You are correct that Americans have trouble with the social distinctions. These are found in Spanish also: tu – informal and usted – formal. “Tu” should be translated thou, not you. Thou is the address for God in the Spanish Bible and in the old King James version, indicating intimacy with God.

    The formal you was reserved for people of a higher social rank or for those to who one wanted to show respect. American egalitarianism is reflected in the American usage of “you” for everyone.

  2. Hi Alice:
    I think you are right that this reflects American egalitarianism–such descriptions go back at least to de Tocqueville!

    But a byproduct of this perhaps is also that Americans fail to draw clear distinctions between “colleagueship” and “friendship” that Europeans do. The distinction between du and Sie (and also the Spanish and French equivalents) is also an acknowledgment that some relations are limited by the social circumstance (or transitory), and others are less so.


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