Monday, June 9, 2014

Du oder Sie?

The title of this post would literally be translated into English "You or you?" That's because, like many other languages, German has both formal and informal speech. (Having learned Spanish in high school, this was familiar to me when we started German language learning.) There is a form of "you" that you use with kids, friends and family and a form of you that brings along with it more respect and that you use with those older than you, people you don't know, etc.

Sounds simple, right? There are only two categories, so it must not be complex. But it's actually not simple. When to use Du (informal) or Sie (formal) can be challenging to figure out and the last thing you ever want to do as an "outsider" is to use the wrong form and offend someone. It's something we need to be careful about.

For example, a 30-year-old could be referred to by a bartender with the formal "Sie" out of respect, but be offended because it makes them feel old. Or a recent college graduate could be referred to with the informal "du" and feel like someone isn't taking them seriously or treating them like an adult.

I recently read an article in a German language magazine about when and how to use formal and informal language, and the crux of the article was this: it's not easy! Language and culture are always changing, so the "rules" of etiquette 5 years ago could be different now and with each generation, perceptions of formal and informal language morph and change.

The article laid out 10 general rules for use, as follows:

1) Friends and family: always informal

2)  Strangers who are adults: always formal

3) Children and youth: informal

4) Students talking to students (no matter the age) and those in a sports club together: informal

5) Speaking to employees at the bank, doctor's office, or in an official office: formal

6) Speaking to police:  always formal!

7) The older person in the relationship always offers the informal language and then the younger person can speak informally back.

8) The person in the relationship with the higher status offers the informal language first, regardless of age (i.e. a doctor to a patient, professor/teacher to student, etc.).

9) At the workplace, no one should be spoken to informally by someone to whom they would speak formally.

10) If you're unsure, always wait until the other person speaks informally to you, before speaking informally to them.

This last one is most important to us! As foreigners, we need to be especially careful when communicating in ways that could be considered offensive. Because we are not readily accepted, we want to hold ourselves to a high standard and always go out of our way to show respect and courtesy. We want to impress, rather than confirm a negative stereotype.

Thinking about this reminds me of the idea of being "above reproach" as Christians. Just as we want to be careful with our German language use, shouldn't we be even more aware of how we use every word and live our lives, setting an example for others? We should give no one reason to accuse us and we should not put the name of Christ to shame (I Peter 3:14 - 16). May we live lives above reproach, always setting an example, showing respect and demonstrating love. By this, they will see Christ in us!

Photo credit: Yoel from 

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