German is a confusing language for many. There are three articles that follow little logic (for example, the moon, female in many languages, is male in German while the sun, often lingustically male, is a she in German). Then there is lots of complicated cases and terrible tenses. But most troubling for foreigners might be questions of courtesy. At least that is what I understood when I was recently asked:
“Can I say “du” to my roomate?”
German knows basically two ways of addressing people: the informal du (“you”) accompanied by the first name, and “Sie”, the formal designation that usually is followed by a “Ms/Mr” (occasionally also with a first name which is then referred to as “Hamburger Sie”). So far, so difficult. But who do you address with Sie (“siezen”) and who can you call du (“duzen”)?
Some German learners prefer to siezen everyone because that way you don’t have to adjust the verb but can use the infintive all the time. However, siezen and duzen has so many social implications that it is important to choose the right form – even if it is a conjugational hassle.
The general rule in Germany is: you say Sie to everyone that is – or looks – older than, say, 16. Except if you are the same age group. A 19-year-old who says Sie to an 18-year-old appears rather ridiculous. In high school, from the age of 16 onwards, teachers call you by your first name and Sie. (Students always call teachers Ms and Sie. Actually, I even spoke to my kindergarten teacher as Frau Zimmer and Sie.) At university, professors refer to their students on a last-name-basis with a Sie. The Du has then become the address for the underage and you have acquired Sie privileges. Consequently, children are always to be addressed with du.
In professional environments, you should always – always – start by saying Sie to people. Changing to the du is possible, and common in some fields, but the du must be offered by the person that stands above you in hierachy and age. An intern meeting me can only say du to me if I introduce myself with my first name only. At the same time, I must say Sie to my boss or client until they suggest the du. There are tricky cases, like when the boss is younger than you. But maybe then the Sie-Du-question is not your biggest problem. Also, at company parties it might happen that you, tipsy thanks to free drinks, end up saying du to your similarily intoxicated co-workers. But beware – this might be nullified the next day, and you’re back to Sie.
If you meet new friends, you can pretty much be sure that it is okay to say du to them. At parties and similar social gatherings, age and hierachy is less important. In your choir, it is perfectly acceptable to say du to your fellow singer even if he is 20 years older than you.
Friends’ parents (also in-laws)
The friend-rule does not apply when it comes to your friends’ parents. Yes, there are many parents who are fine with you calling them Helga and Horst and saying du. This is, however, not something you should assume. If you start of with Herr Schnarrenberger and Frau Schnarrenberger, you are on the safe side, showing respect and good manners. If you marry a German, your in-laws will sooner or later ask you to say du to them. But give them the chance to do so, thus exhibting your detailed knowledge of linguistic subtleties.
The German practices of Sie and du sound complicated. But really,they are practical indicators of both status and intimacy. Being offered the du means something. Honoring someone by saying Sie expresses your apprecation. If you need to distance yourself for some reason (Ingrid’s example: “getting molested on public transport”), you can respond to someone who says du to you by siez-ing back, thus creating a clear “we’re-not-friends”- demarcation for them and others around you. The German language is beautifully versatile if you get the hang of it.
Oh, and to answer the question: your roommate falls under the “among friends” rule. Yes, you say du to her. If you don’t want to provoke a laughing fit.