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Why being on last-name terms in Germany is no longer in keeping with the times


Being on first-name terms is becoming increasingly popular in Germany, even in the office. Does Germany still need the polite form of address "Sie"? And where does this form come from?


"Sie" or "Du" - which is appropriate when?

Sometimes, however, it's not so easy to decide whether you should address a person as "Sie" or "Du". Because with increasing age it is more difficult to determine who is older now. In addition, younger people are often old enough to be called by their first name. The Duden recommends resorting to the polite form of address "Sie" when things are not clear. And the mutual form of address should only be offered by the person of higher rank. Until the middle of the 20th century, children even had to address their parents formally. Anything else was evidence of bad manners.




But fortunately, the times when we have to express ourselves so awkwardly and formally are becoming rarer and rarer. In the meantime, the "Du" is no longer just common among friends or family. Even companies are increasingly adopting a " Du" culture today. And not only among colleagues, often even the boss is addressed as "Du".


But since when and why do we use the form of address " Sie" at all? Can't we just adapt to English and call everyone by their first name? And what is the reason why we are increasingly turning away from the " Sie "?


In the 16th century, people used to be called "geihrzt" (your) instead of "gesiezt".

First of all, a linguistic historical excursion: For about 200 years, a distinction has been made in German-speaking countries between the familiar "Du" and the polite "Sie" in the form of address. But of course, linguistic politeness has been around for much longer. Linguist Horst J. Simon explained the change in his essay, how

politeness confuses the person(s) - and how grammar puts it back in order. For example, in the 16th century, people still addressed each other as "Ihr" / "your," which is the second person plural, instead of the second person singular as with "du" / "you." So in theory, back then, people didn't ask  "Geht es Ihnen gut?", sondern "Hoheit, geht es Euch gut?" / "Are you well?" but "Your Highness, are you well?"


In this way, someone is not addressed directly, but treated as more than one person. A distance is created. It seems as if the person addressed is part of a group. This is precisely the principle on which politeness works: according to Simon, it is meant to bring out a person's merits and spare him or her. "Your" is used to disguise who is actually being addressed, while "you" is very direct and unambiguous. It's like pointing a finger at someone. So when speaking, the less directly you address potentially unpleasant issues, the more polite you are. Incidentally, the form of address "Ihr" is still the polite form in French today - as a counterpart to the German "Sie".


However, in the course of time, singular and plural became more and more blurred. 

Those who use "Sie" are narrow-minded and do not treat people equally.

Why has the form of address "Sie" remained to this day? Perhaps because it has become a tradition. Language doesn't change overnight. But one thing is certain: Change continues. Today, the world is no longer so much characterized by estates or hierarchies. Today,

everyone and everything is networked. The differences between people are becoming less, everyone is the same. As a result, we need a polite form of address less and less and resort to the " Du " more often. If you want to treat people equally, you have to do the same when addressing them.




Psychologists also attribute the change to these developments. The former dominance of aristocrats has turned into liberal coexistence. Individuality replaces hierarchies. As a result, we are once again putting people and their abilities in the foreground. The boundary between the private and public spheres is no longer as clear as it once was. Work and leisure time are intermingled via the smartphone alone. We tell private things publicly via

our cell phones and also use the device in the office. Interpersonal interaction is becoming more personal, more familiar, more relaxed. Artificial distance is no longer necessary. That's why we no longer have to think about what the right form of address is. We simply choose the same form of address for everyone. And anyone who still uses last names is not keeping up with the times and ignoring this change. Really?


Sometimes politeness is still important

It's not quite there yet. And even if we don't have to anymore - sometimes the polite form of address " Sie" is still appropriate. It is even desirable. For example, when journalists talk to

politicians. It is also appropriate in situations where we want to show appreciation or maintain a distance.

What is your opinion about " Du" and "Sie"? Write it in the comments.


Read more blogs!


Navigating "Du" and "Sie" in German: Understanding Formal and Informal Address



Mastering German Greetings: A Guide to Welcoming with Warmth and Courtesy



A quick guide on how to use German grammar terminology




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