The Du-Sie Tango


Almost any language one might study these days has more than one way of saying “you” — a formal way and an informal way, as well as ways to signify that one is addressing one person or many. German has all that, but there exists a gray area between the informal Du and the formal Sie which has been getting larger every year, it seems.

The extremes of the spectrum remain the same — Du for your family; your intimate circle of friends, the ones with whom you are on a first name basis; all children (when does one start saying Sie to a young person these days? I suppose it used to change over with the Debutant ball, first day of university,  or whatever coming-of-age ritual had been observed. Now everyone is in a state of advanced adolescence). Further in are your colleagues, the ones on the same level as you. After that, it gets more complicated, especially now in the Internet Age, where we are all Facebookfreunde and use Du  with people we’ve never met. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Sie is used for people above you in station, the police, strangers (well, unless you are in a Tyrolean village, or up on a mountain, but let’s not go there today.)

The theater is one such example of a host of complicated Du versus Sie situations. As one of the Künstler (artists) I am on one of the bottom hierarchical rungs, so to speak, but with lots of company, as all performers — singers, actors, dancers, orchestra, chorus — as well as the technical staff — dressers, costume and make-up people, stagehands, sound and lighting technicians, doormen, ushers, und und und — are here in this same boat and call each other Du.

On the other end of the spectrum? Let’s work our way down. The Intendant is Sie. S/he may call you by your first name and use Du, but you will use Sie. Much like a teacher/pupil relationship. Some colleagues may know your boss from earlier times elsewhere, and they may be on closer terms and use Du with each other all the time, and you might find yourself at a table in the Kantine using Du with one person and Sie with the other — that is as it should be. Until your boss clearly says “Call me [first name here]”, you use Sie. Even when s/he is younger than you.

The rules get more vague as you come down the ladder to the office administrative people, the dramaturgs, the chief conductor, the chorus director, the heads of departments. Here is where I myself have the most trouble, and find ways to dance around either form of address by reformulating all my sentences. “Can I see you about something later today?” becomes “May I come in later today to discuss a matter?”, “Fine, thanks, and how are you?” becomes “Danke, und selber?“, etc.

Interesting to see that politicians have this same problem.

Image found here.

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