Formal or informal? That is the question. There are two ways to say ‘you’ in German: ‘Sie’ and ‘du’, formal and informal. Of all the tricky things there are in learning a language I found this to be a difficult concept to get a good grasp on. Not necessarily the technical side of how to use it but to whom. What makes it more difficult is in English there is very minimal use of the formal, it’s mostly informal. In school you certainly wouldn’t call your teacher by their first name (or at least I never did), it was always Mr. or Mrs. Whoever. At the university the line blurs a bit, you might very well have called one or more of your professors by their first names. After the university and into the adult world you were on a first name basis with pretty much everyone except, maybe, your doctor.
To know how to address someone correctly or offer them the possibility of addressing you informally, you literally need to have a flowchart in your head – if this is the situation then do this, otherwise this or maybe that. Here are the essentials. If you are meeting someone for the first time the highest priority is age, basically children or anyone under 15 or 16 (and all animals for that matter) are spoken to informally and by first name. But a 15 year old can look like 17 year old so heads up because you might run into problems there. No problem if you’ve known them since they were in diapers though, then it’s lifelong informal. Friends are a no-brainer; informal too. If you ride a motorcycle, then you are on informal terms with all other motorcycle riders but beware, mopeds don’t count as motorcycles, so don’t even think about doing a motorcyclist’s greeting (a raised hand when passing) let alone call him ‘du’ if you are riding a moped. When climbing a mountain you are on informal terms with everyone you meet along the way (that’s when you are climbing higher than 3’000 meters – otherwise other rules count). Members of clubs and associations in general are informal, but not always. Then, bosses are spoken to formally but on the other hand an older person can offer the informal form, but if two people are the same age then the woman should take the initiative. But wait, who trumps if the man and woman are about the same age but the man is the boss or has a higher position? The answer is; it depends. It could also be possible that the person you are talking to has a more open view of how they address people and you would be ‘per du’ from the go-get, but maybe not (a man-bun or a man-ponytail might be a hint here). If this sounds like a nightmare, you’re right, it is. Luckily you’re cut some slack when you are learning the language. But you will make mistakes, and believe me, there will be lots of them.
I’ve developed a couple of rules to handle the situation. Rule 1, speaking in the third person is my friend, I’ve done it a lot and can do it well – you talk to the person without ever addressing them directly unless, Rule 2, the situation is clear cut (see above). Rule 3 is to do whatever you feel is right, but to do it with gusto (and expect to step in some puddles of hot oil along the way). But, please, can someone tell me why hairdressers feel like they have to introduce themselves using their first names and then use the formal form of ‘you’? Talk about confusing. How do you introduce yourself back, with your first name and continue using the polite form of ‘you’? Back to rule one or three.
It’s nice to know that sometimes the Swiss themselves get thrown a curve ball. For example when someone’s last name sounds like a first name. Let’s say Marc Meyer is introducing himself to Simon Peter (Peter is his last name). They would probably introduce themselves in the formal, which would be last name. The conversation could go something like this:
Meyer: (shaking Peter’s hand) Hello. Meyer.
Meyer: (thinking Peter’s has just introduced himself using his first name and thus invited him to speak on an informal basis) In that case, Marc.
Peter: (obviously having lived through this situation many times and enjoying himself) In that case, Simon.
I remember my mother-in-law being disturbed by someone who called her by her first name without being on informal terms with them. Her reaction was to say ‘we didn’t look after the pigs together’. Obviously, if you have been in a pigsty with someone then you can say ‘you’ to each other and forget all the other rules.