Using the familiar term ‘Du’ or the respectful term ‘Sie’ in the workplace?

  • 2023-10-06
  • Lisa Priller-Gebhardt
  • Comment
Business people greeting each other during a coffee break at a conference
© Getty Images/Anchiy

Using the familiar term ‘Du’ frequently seems to have become the norm in today’s working environment, albeit not in all sectors. This makes it particularly difficult for newcomers in Germany to determine when to use the familiar ‘Du’ and when to use the respectful ‘Sie’. Our expert Linda Kaiser, Deputy Chair of the German Etiquette Society, clarifies the most important questions.

Ms Kaiser, why is it becoming more and more common in the workplace to be on first-name terms?

English has become the de facto corporate language in international companies. It’s now also used for external communication. People want to appear particularly cosmopolitan, dynamic and young. They tend to confuse the English ‘you’ with ‘Du’, which is a very familiar form of address in the German language. The term ‘Du’ tends to be used as a matter of course by young people in particular, since it is commonly used on virtually all social media channels and streaming services.

When did being on first name terms start?

The ‘Du’ wave has its origins in advertising. Swedish furniture group Ikea was one of the forerunners. The familiar form of address has been a consistent part of corporate policy since 1974 – on a global basis. ‘Du’ applies in principle to everyone in Sweden, apart from the royal family.

Are there sectoral differences?

‘Du’ is frequently used in the creative professions such as IT, e-commerce, the start-up scene and telecommunications, where even customers are sometimes mercilessly addressed using the familiar term. People in more conservative sectors such as banking and insurance tend to be more formal, as is still the case with the old retail trade including department stores or pharmacies. The general rule is that the more expensive the product, the more the respectful term is used.

Easy German: Duzen und Siezen (in German)

Easy German: Duzen und Siezen (in German)
Easy German: Duzen und Siezen (in German) ©

What do newcomers to companies need to be aware of?

It’s initially advisable to stick with the respectful form ‘Sie’, unless ‘Du’ is part of the corporate culture and is accordingly used for general communication. It’s only advisable to move on to the familiar ‘Du’ when it has been explicitly offered by higher-ranking colleagues. Being on first-name terms has become the norm in our agile working environment, because it reduces the distance between hierarchical levels. The ‘Du’ form of address is often taken for granted, especially in companies with younger and international employees.

What are the basic rules when offering the ‘Du’ form?

In a working environment that’s solely dependent on rank. The person with the higher rank offers use of the ‘Du’ form to someone of a lower rank. In a private sphere, the older person would offer ‘Du’ to someone younger. And a woman would offer the use of ‘Du’ to a man if they were roughly the same age.

There is often talk of an occasion-based ‘Du’. What does that mean?

The 'Du' form is often used in a closed setting when people come together for specific occasions, such as a seminar, a professional development course or a corporate event. It then only applies for the duration of the activity. Everyone who wants to can subsequently revert to using ‘Sie’.

Why do so many people continue to insist on using ‘Sie’?

‘Du’ is anchored as a very familiar form of address in German. It’s like a favour granted to others, and only after various aspects have been considered: do we have common values, objectives, friends? In professional life, too, it’s considered impolite to have 'Du' imposed upon you. Whether it’s by a colleague or by a customer. The business platform Xing, for example, failed miserably with its introduction of an unsolicited familiar form of address. It had notified its members via email that the familiar ‘Du’ would be used in all communication with immediate effect. The community protested against this – with success.

Can the used of ‘Du’ be declined?

A decline needs to be carefully considered – you need to ask yourself whether your counterpart can cope with it. And besides, I always recommend communicating in first person messages. Here are a few examples: “I’d prefer it if we stuck to using ‘Sie’”, “Thank you for the offer and I’m honoured, but let’s stick to using ‘Sie’” or “I’m happy to stick with ‘Sie’ in a professional context”. But then you should also use the respectful ‘Sie’ with all your contacts and not make any exceptions, otherwise the other person will feel snubbed.

Can the use of ‘Du’ be retracted?

No, because once granted it lasts a lifetime.

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