Formal or informal

In Germany, there is still a clear distinction as regards how people address each other—by their first name, accompanied by the “du” form of address or as Mr. or Ms., with the “Sie” form of address. But things aren't as usually as simple as this.

In the German etiquette guide everything is clearly regulated. Women offer men the opportunity to use the informal form of address; older people offer younger people this opportunity, and in hierarchies the offer is from top to bottom. But is this not just a little outdated in our globalized world? German business people are quite used to addressing business partners from the U.S. or the UK by their first name. It seems strange to revert to the German formal address again at the next meeting. At one meeting it's Thomas and Anne, at the next Mr. Weber and Dr. Klein.

An increasing number of companies in Germany are avoiding this balancing act and generally use first names and the informal “du.” But surveys have shown that not all employees like this. From a cultural aspect, in Germany the use of first names is connected with a particular degree of closeness and affection. Because of this, most people feel uncomfortable using first names when talking to strangers. In any case, it just seems more suitable to use the formal “Sie” when speaking to someone who is much older or much higher up in the company hierarchy. This explains why about 50 percent of people over 50 and more than 40 percent of women prefer the formal address at their workplace. They know that there can be many problems associated with misunderstood familiarity—and that, especially when conflicts arise, this can lead to criticism being formulated too flippantly, personally and scathingly.

If supervisors address employees formally as Mr. or Ms., it is often easier for the employees not to take criticism personally and to formulate their own demands because the understanding of professional and private roles is less blurred. It is also generally better to address customers as Mr. or Ms. in order to maintain a distance. While companies like IKEA and Coca-Cola advertise themselves as young and address their customers in an informal way, their employees use the formal “Sie” in consultation meetings. The same applies to company communication and recruiting on social media channels. More and more companies are using the informal “du.” But during a job interview, this doesn't mean that applicants can address everyone present by their first name.

In other words, it remains complicated. The book of etiquette at the back of your mind helps by specifying a rough guide. But you have to keep fine-tuning the details in your everyday life.

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