Word! The Language Column
May I Say “Du” to You?

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
Can I call you by your first name? Or is that offensive? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

To say “Sie” or to say “du” – sometimes, that’s the question. Hasnain Kazim thinks so too and looks around the world: How do formal and informal forms of address work in Scandinavia and Asia, at government agencies, editorial offices and in political parties? And how do they sometimes not work? In any case, they do mirror real life.

By Hasnain Kazim

Dear Reader, 
How would you like it if I called you by your first name – if I said du to you in German? Is that okay even though we don’t know each other? Or do you find it strange, a violation even? Is that too close for comfort? 
I know people in Germany who think it’s “totally OK” to immediately call one another du, regardless of age, social status or how well they know each other. Others are put out by it. Often, but not always, the former are more progressive, liberal, politically left-wing, the latter more middle-class, conservative, politically right-wing. And younger people are more informal than older people. Protest if you must; I can’t prove it. But I think the Greens are more likely to say du – are more informal with each other – than, say, people in the CDU. 

Maintaining the formality

Some want to abolish social differences and power imbalances that they perceive as unfair by reducing differences at the linguistic level: ‘Let’s just say du!’ Others perceive the use of Sie as an expression of politeness and respectful distance.
I can understand both sides. I think you can be respectful, polite and reserved on first-name terms. But I also think that it’s part of human interaction to maintain formality. How grown-up and taken seriously we felt when, from the eleventh grade onwards, our teachers suddenly started saying Sie! (Yes, some thought it was silly, too.) 

On a first-name basis with the head of government

In Sweden, the formal address has been virtually abolished since the sixties. Up until then, people used formal forms of address and titles. At some point, though, they’d had enough of it. They wanted flat hierarchies, a barrier-free language where you don’t have to think long about the form of address, they wanted to reflect a democratic society, a society in which all people are equal and have the same rights, in the language. The head of the Health and Social Services Authority at the time, Bror Rexed, took a daring step forward. “Kalla mig Bror!” he said, “Call me Bror!” From then on, he called everyone by their first name and everyone called him by their first name. From then on, everyone called everyone by their first name, except the king and his family, because equality doesn’t go that far.
It’s very similar in neighbouring Norway. There, as in Swedish, the language has the equivalent to the German Sie form, but no one uses it. Even the head of government would be immediately addressed as “Hei Jonas, gamle kompis!” or “Hello Jonas, old friend!” A gamle kompis of mine who has lived in Norway for many years says that his Norwegian teacher told him that in Norway only Pakistani grocers still use the first form of address, otherwise no one does it any more. 

Mirrored hierarchy

Well, yeah, I think, of course Pakistanis use formal pronouns, because in Urdu there are not only two pronouns, but three gradations, and the correct, polite form of address, the formally respectful way of dealing with people is deeply ingrained in you even if you switch to another language. (Only in English is it not possible, there’s only “you” as it is, so there’s no choice). In South Asia, societies are much more hierarchical than in Europe and it’s reflected in language. One may criticise this and want to do things differently but in most cases it just doesn’t work. When I once lived in Pakistan, we had a cook and housekeeper working for us. It is customary to address your domestic staff using the informal pronoun, but they address their employer using the formal pronoun. I thought I’d go toe-to-toe and address him formally. 
You can’t imagine how that irked him! First he thought I was making fun of him. Then he thought I couldn’t speak Urdu correctly. At some point he couldn’t stand it any longer and asked me to address him informally. But he continued to address me using the formal pronoun and even said “sir” to me. Always. I asked him many times not to do that. “All right, sir!” was always his reply. There was nothing to be done and things haven’t changed. When I ring him, he says, “Salam, sir!”
In the course of writing this in German, I slid back into addressing my dear reader as Sie. That’s still the South Asian in me. But I don’t overdo it with the formalities. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, people are on formal terms with their parents, just as they were in Germany not so long ago. And with older siblings. The wife uses formal pronouns with her husband. If their relationship is respectful and equal, he does the same with her. Seems strange, don’t you think? Unfair and far too hierarchical? You can look at it that way.


I remember once someone in Germany called my father du where it was really inappropriate. I was still a child. We were in an agency – it was about residence papers for us – and the official felt powerful. Even then, I felt that saying du was not appropriate there. It was deliberate disrespect towards my father. He didn’t let on – maybe he didn’t mind – but I remember thinking, ‘That’s not right! I won’t put up with that when I grow up!’ That’s still in me too: this suspicion that someone is deliberately talking down to me when they address me as du without asking. 
Now you might object: Goodness, human interaction is complicated enough, why does the language have to be, too? Because language mirrors life! Use du where du is appropriate and Sie where Sie is more suitable! I think so. 
Or use what they call the “Hamburg Sie”: first name salutation, but with Sie: “Peter, könnten Sie mir bitte den Kaffee bringen?” They speak like that in some Hamburg editorial offices. I like that. It sounds very polite. Not too familiar, not too aloof. Some, on the other hand, find this middle ground silly. Another variation is the “Munich Du,” also popular with the military: Address someone by their last name, but say Du: “Müller, komm mal her!” 
I also like the pluralis majestatis, addressing especially dignified or especially powerful personages in the plural. Or, even better, using the third person! The author of this column nourishes the hope that the reader is well disposed towards this essay. Does he or she have any criticism to make? One cannot know. 

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.