German has several forms of the pronoun “you”. The “du” form is the singular informal you, and the “Sie” form is the formal you. I think that for us North Americans, it might sometimes feel awkward for us to use “Sie” as we tend to be more casual. If I am not paying attention, I sometimes accidentally use the “du” form.
Perhaps using “du” for an English speaker feels more natural because we just have the one form of “you” in English (formal and informal, singular and plural).
When I was an exchange student in Köln back in 1994-1995, I addressed my school friends and other people my age using “du” and “ihr” (“ihr” being the informal you – kind of like y’all), my host families as “du” and “ihr” and everyone else as “Sie”. I was always a little surprised when my German friends’ parents were also included in the formal “Sie” category, but I knew that it was respectful to address older people as “Sie”.
I was more surprised that my German host mother always addressed her very good friend as “Sie”. When I asked her about it, she said that even though they had known each other for years, using “Sie” with each other was a sign of respect for her friend.
I think that the rules have relaxed since then. Our friend Rafael in Mannheim, who is our age, tells me that nearly everyone in his age group and younger uses “du” with each other (we are in our early thirties, in case anyone is wondering!). And indeed, I have definitely found this to be true.
In 2006, during the World Cup, I was in Hamburg with a group of German students. When my students were in their classes during the day, I spent much of the time with the other teachers at the school. Nearly all of them addressed each other using the informal “du”. One notable except was an older teacher, close to retirement age, who still insisted on using “Sie” with everyone. I asked him about it and he sighed a little, and told me he uses it as a sign of respect toward his colleagues. He said he wished the usage would continue but that he felt things are changing toward a more casual usage.
When I go into stores here, of course the formal “Sie” form is used between the clerk and me; the same goes for people I meet while on walks with Rosebud and for other people I don’t know. Rosebud, of course, is always addressed as “du” because she is a baby! And she will learn quickly that adults and possibly much older kids will be addressed using “Sie”.
I expected the “Sie” rule to hold true with our neighbors as well.
We live in a rowhouse; there are two other homes/families in our building. The other two families have children who are about our age, hence my expectation to use the formal “Sie”. Naturally I began our conversation with “Sie”. It’s always a safe bet to use “Sie”. I have been pleasantly surprised that soon after our initial meeting with both neighbors, we were accepted right away and we were “geduzt” fairly quickly into our conversation. (German has these two cool verbs: “duzen” – to call someone by the informal “du”, that is, to address someone informally; and “siezen” – to address someone with the formal “Sie”).
Although I like the respect shown when I’m addressed as “Sie”, it does please me that our neighbors feel comfortable addressing us with the “du/ihr” forms. Certainly they respect us (and have complimented me on my excellent German!), but I feel like the “du” usage means that we are accepted as good neighbors. I suppose, however, the blueberry muffins and black bottom cupcakes* I brought to the neighbors helped spread feelings of good will toward us, too!
For the Easter holiday, we will be traveling to Köln, where we will visit my German host families. I am really looking forward to it. Both of my German mothers only have sons, so when I came to them as an exchange student, they were thrilled to finally get their daughter. In one of the families, all three of the sons are married and have their own children but right now, they’re all living abroad (in the US and China). In the other family, neither of the sons are married. So you can imagine that both families are quite excited we’ll be visiting them for Easter. They can’t wait to meet their new “Enkelin”, Miss Rosebud. I’m glad that Rosebud will have German “grandparents”.
*Speaking of baked goods, my German oven has a convection oven feature in addition to the standard over/under heating element. I am gradually learning that the convection oven takes less time when baking. We’re also at an altitude of 682 meters (2238 feet). It’s not quite high enough to be considered high altitude for baking purposes, but close enough. One tip I’ve read is to reduce the leavening a little so I will be experimenting with my recipes. Do I have any taste-testers out there? 😉