The Curious Case of the “You’s”

One aspect of the German work environment that has been especially interesting to observe is the use of “Sie” (formal you) and “du” (informal you). Before coming to Germany and immersing myself in a professional business atmosphere, I had only a basic understanding of how the relationship between the “you’s” operates. Through seven years of German language study, I knew that the formal you “Sie” was to be used with strangers and when addressing figures of authority (for example, a professor, congressman or elder), and that the informal you was to be used with close relatives and friends. However, I have since realized that the relationship between the “you’s” is much more complex and layered.

To gain a better understanding I must first point out that every business environment is different. On my first day I greeted my boss using “Sie” and she immediately corrected me and told me that everyone in the office uses the more informal “du.” This was a surprise to me because the office and work attire is very formal and structured.

My confusion with the “you’s” was furthered during our first business meeting with an external company that would be working with us. They arrived promptly and were greeted with kisses from my colleagues. Despite this rather intimate greeting, they proceeded to run the meeting using the more formal “Sie.” After about 5 hours of serious business conversation a pause in the meeting for lunch occurred. After a hearty meal and a few laughs later, everyone began using the informal “du.” Subsequent meetings afterward have involved the use of “du” only.

I have also observed business meetings where the more formal “Sie” is used exclusively, with no change to “du.” As the weeks go on, I look forward to further investigation into the curious case of the you’s!IMG_8751