Reader Angelika R. wrote to me to ask how she would express the difference between “du” and “Sie” when speaking English to native speakers. She wrote: “I feel very uncomfortable when English-speakers introduce themselves with their first name, and call me by my first name. I don’t want to say ‘du’ to them, but can I refuse to let them call me by my first name without sounding impolite?”
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This is a very important topic, and it’s a question that many of you have probably thought about at one time or another. So I’m sharing the answer I gave to Angelika with all of you.
The answer is, “no” – we have nothing similar to “du” and “Sie” in modern English. We do use “Mr” and “Ms” and “Mrs” for strangers, but after the first couple of exchanges, we usually use first names. But this does not mean that we have changed from “Sie” to “du”.
Important: Calling someone by their first name in English is not the same as being “per du”. If someone asks you to call them by their first name, it might be considered impolite if you refuse.
German-speakers often think that we are all “per du” with each other, because we usually call each other by our first names and say “you”. But strictly speaking, we are actually all “per Sie”. There used to be two forms, “thou” and “you”.
Old English familiar form
thou art = du bist
you are = ihr seid
for thee = für dich
thy house = dein Haus
Old English polite form
you are = Sie sind (sing. and pl.)
for you = für Sie
your house = Ihr Haus
The Old English familiar form is still used today in prayer and in some English dialects, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland, and in Shakespeare’s works. You shouldn’t use it in your business English.
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