Du or Sie - How to Address Your German Customers?
Updated: Mar 31
Sie is formal and du is informal for 'you'
Du or Sie is one of the most famous quirks of the German language. But in case you haven't heard about the formal and informal personal pronouns in German: Sie is the formal way to address someone and du is the informal and more friendly translation of “you”. If you address authority figures like civil servants, police officers, seniors, etc. you are supposed to use Sie. If you speak to your friends you will use du.
Choose wisely, as it is not so easy to change later on
However, once you chose whether formal or informal style, it is not so easy to change. Be aware that it is not only switching du to Sie. Then it comes with more changes in the sentence. For example, translated into the du or the Sie:
So having your du and Sie strategy set from the beginning can save you a lot of money, changing it, later on, will cost you a lot.
“Alexander Müller, you need something to drink”
Would tranlsate to:
Sie: “Herr Müller, Sie brauchen etwas zu trinken”
Du: “Alexander, du brauchst etwas zu trinken”
Depending on whether you are going to use the du or Sie way of addressing your target group the sentence changes. Using the Sie you would use the surname, write Sie with a capital letter and adjust the grammar of the word “need” ("brauchen"). While at du you would use the first name, writing in in small caps and adjust the grammar of the word “need” ("brauchst").
You see now, why life is too short to learn German? And that is just some basics.
About du or Sie in Germany
There are no concrete rules on when to use one or the other. Some decades ago, nearly every interaction outside of family and close friends was done with the formal Sie. But now using du is more commonly used, especially in the younger generation.
One of the reasons for the transformation of a more easy-going language in Germany is due to the commercial use in marketing. Since du used to be reserved for close interaction with friends and family, some marketers figured they can create a special personal bond if they address their potential customers with du. IKEA was perhaps the first brand in Germany that chose to “duzen” their German customers in 2003. Since then more marketers use du for addressing their target group.
Du is used more often nowadays, but Sie is still alive
The development that du was used more often in marketing, is probably also one of the reasons addressing people with du became more common in people's everyday life. du got much more popular over time, especially with younger audiences. But Sie is still not dead, just the bar to say Sie rose. Still, the older generation used Sie and it is a form of respect that is appreciated or even demanded in some situations. Even the young, international-minded, and cool Germans find it rude to be addressed with du by landlords, teachers, or clerks. So it highly depends on the situation when to use formal or informal translation to "you".
When to use Sie or du in marketing
So, what should you use for marketing, you may ask? Well, again, there are no clear rules and it depends on your marketing strategy, target group, and corporate identity. As a "rule of thumb" as we say in Germany, If your business sells streetwear du is probably the best way and if it sells antique clocks Sie is the best approach.
Decisive is the alignment with your corporate identity and your target group in Germany
Decisive is the alignment with your corporate identity and your target group in Germany. If you want to be seen as a very reputable company and your target group are wealthy older Germans, you want to use Sie. If you are rather a cool company with products for young and international folks, use du. If you are somewhere in between you either have to choose or test it. For example, you could launch two identical advertisements, one with Sie and one with du and check which one gets better results (A/B testing).
To make matters even more complicated, you can use Sie as a cool company to invert expectations and set you apart from the du competition. But that is a bold marketing tactic.
When to use Sie or du in sales
Direct contact with clients is a different story than indirect communication on the website or through ads. Here you have a person-to-person connection, which makes it more likely that Sie is applicable. It is simply more common to use Sie when strangers speak with one another and especially in the context of company-to-client communication. So in most cases when you speak to clients directly, you better go with Sie.
Sie or du in B2B sales
For B2B connections it is mostly not so different then to what applies in general when talking to Germans. Here again, it depends on the exact situation of the interaction and on the marketing strategy, target group, and corporate identity. However, in B2B direct connection in sales is more likely than in B2C and also the target group tends to be more respectable, older, and perhaps even more conservative. Therefore it is more likely that Sie is the right choice. However, among younger professionals, du could be the better way to get a closer connection.
When to use Sie or du in customer service
To go back to IKEA, the pioneer to use du in marketing. For customer service, however, they stuck with Sie. Again addressing someone with the Sie is a way to show respect, which you want to have in customer service. So also in customer service, Sie is more likely the better choice. However, again if it fits to your business, target group and is authentic, you can also use du. Somewhere between 2003 and today IKEA also switched from du to Sie in customer service, because the environment and the strategy changed. IKEA found out, probably after spending millions on market research, that expanding the friendly du to all segments was more beneficial than the respect bonus from the Sie. As mentioned changing from one to another is not easy and takes away time, money, and even customers. So having your du and Sie strategy set from the beginning can save you a lot of money, changing it, later on, will cost you a lot. IKEA could fit the bill, can you?
IKEA could fit the bill, can you?