Most European languages distinguish between a formal and an informal you. French has tu and vous, Spanish tú and usted, and Portuguese even has three gradations (tu, você and o senhor/a senhora). But each culture navigates the resulting ambiguities in its own way. And Germans seem particularly vulnerable...In my German classes, Herr Otto explained that "Du" existed, but that we should always use "Sie." That was many years ago, and I've never used "Du" in conversation. Native German-speaking readers are invited to comment, and I'm curious as to what is taught in high-school and college classrooms these days.
Today’s Germans have been eagerly importing informality from America, crediting its prevailing casualness—in places such as Silicon Valley—with creativity, productivity and modernity generally. So the Germans, like the Swedes and Danes, are increasingly dispensing with the formal second person even among strangers...
In a self-consciously American environment such as Starbucks, the transition is all but complete; its baristas in Berlin use Du as naturally as though they were saying "have a great day" in Seattle. Other environments cling to a more Germanic, rules-based approach. At the front desk of a vacation resort in rural Mecklenburg, I received, along with our keys, a one-page form instructing us that we were to use Du throughout the grounds, with all guests and personnel. We promised to obey, and partially did.
The form may sound ridiculous, but it’s trickier when the protocol must be inferred spontaneously. A flow chart has been circulating on German Facebook pages that sets out to clarify in PowerPoint style who may initiate the Du with whom and when. In a nutshell: it’s still advisable that the junior should wait for the senior and the male for the female, and that all those confused avoid making any utterance. Dilbert types in the German corporate world share wrenching tales of already being at Du with a peer until one of them gets promoted.
11 January 2013
Germans are shifting from "Sie" to "Du"
The complexity is explained in an Intelligent Life column: