Most European languages have informal and formal versions of 'you’, and German is no different. Nowadays, Berliners and young people use the formal Sie less and less, making it difficult to know when to use Sie and when to use the informal du.
It can be easy to think, „If I’m not sure, I’ll use Sie”. But using Sie when du is expected can be just as awkward as choosing du when you should have said Sie.
Always use Sie:
- When speaking to elderly people (apart from relatives). Using du here is disrespectful.
- When speaking to police officers and other authority figures.
- When you first speak to a teacher (including your German teacher!), a professor or a manager.
Always use du:
- When speaking to close friends, classmates and family members.
- When speaking to young children.
- When the other person has switched from Sie to du. To continue using Sie would be rude.
Where both are used:
- Work: if you work in KaDeWe, you must address your customers with Sie. If you work in Starbuck’s it is always du. Offices vary.
- Older strangers: this is a difficult one. It depends on where you are in Germany, how old the person is and their social position. Here you can use Sie when in doubt.
- Strangers of a similar age: two 30-year-old Berliners would almost certainly use du, whereas two 60-year-olds in rural Germany would use Sie.
If you aren’t sure, it’s best to listen to what the German person uses and follow them.