Du/du or Sie: which form of address to use to best reach your clients in the DACH/German-speaking area

Flags of Switzerland, Austria and Germany

In German, there are three different forms of address that you can use to communicate with your clients: Sie, Du and du.

Find out here which form is most suitable for your business to connect with your target audience and what effect the various forms of address have.

The informal address: Du/du

Regardless of whether it is capitalised or not, Du/du is generally used when talking to minors, good acquaintances, friends and family members. Therefore, it is an informal form of address.

Although the polite form of address, Sie, is always capitalised, there are two different variations with Du/du.

The correct use of these two forms often leads to confusion. There is often confusion surrounding the correct use of these two forms. This is largely because the correct usage has changed over the years.

The capitalised Du is more respectful

Older generations value the form of address with a capitalised Du most of all because they were taught it at school. In contrast to the small du, the capitalised Du is seen as more respectful – but this doesn’t mean that a small du is disrespectful.

In this respect, younger generations put less value on the capitalisation of Du/du.

When older people attach such value and younger people don’t care, you could think that the capitalised Du is the best way to go. But there is a sticking point:

The capitalised Du cannot be used in every instance

In order to use the capitalised Du, the author must address the reader in a targeted and personal way.

So you could expect to read a capitalised Du in newsletters and emails for instance but not in marketing texts. Because with advertising or marketing texts a greater number of people are being addressed at the same time, whilst a newsletter speaks directly to someone in particular. It is important to remember that it is not about the type of text: the decisive criteria for capitalisation is the personal address. (Compare Duden)

The small du is always a possibility

So, the capitalised Du can only be used in certain situations whereas du can always be used.

Therefore, should you want a unifying style for your texts, then the small du is for you.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, you’ll find a deep and very interesting discussion on the website Schriftdeutsch, which contradicts the view of Duden somewhat.

The formal address: Sie

Sie is normally used to address adults. In contrast to Du/du, which is used for friends and family, Sie is used for formal occasions and shows a certain respectful distance from the person you are talking to.

So it’s less about an informal address and more about showing politeness, distance and professionalism.

The form of address is also dependent on your company

Whether you use Du/du or Sie for your clients is entirely dependent on your company culture and how you would like to be seen by your clients.

The Du is very personal – that’s how you’d talk to your best friend. You know each other personally and they’ll take you to one side to give you advice. As they know you so well, they know exactly which factors they should consider when giving you advice – and you trust them of course.

Your friend only wants the best for you and their tips and advice are well thought out and tailored for you. But the advice that they give you doesn’t come from a professional. And they don’t know every single topic inside out.

In contrast to your best friend, someone you address with Sie isn’t as close to you. There is a slight distance between you. You know them perhaps from the office or they are one of your clients – you definitely know them more in a professional than private context.

And as you know each other in a professional context, your conversations are largely about your area of expertise or that of the person you’re having a conversation with. When advising your clients, you are not giving them friendly advice, rather genuine expert advice.

In the end, however, both friendly advice and professional advice can be helpful.

And it’s here that your area of expertise plays a role

As every area of expertise is different, it generally depends on whether your clients put more value on friendly advice or prefer professional advice.

For example, if you want to go to a party and don’t know what to wear – then a good friend can help you best. They know you, your style and exactly what works on you – and if that dark blue jacket doesn’t suit you, they’ll let you know. Your friend isn’t trying to sell you anything, just trying to give you the best advice.

In other areas, such as medicine, law or technology, you’re more likely to trust an expert’s advice.

Unless your friend is qualified to give you legal advice? They did watch Judge Judy on TV that one time after all. Can a conversation with your friend replace a visit to the doctor because they have been ill in the past?

In these cases, you probably wouldn’t want advice from a friend, but rather from an expert who deals with the subject day-in day-out. (But if you’re best friend works in the field, then of course friendly advice can also be really good.)

Regardless of your area of expertise, you should always keep your target audience in mind

Each of your clients will have an individual preference as to how they would like to be addressed. And the age of your target audience plays a role as well.

Finally, your company could even set itself apart from the crowd by using a more unconventional form of address.

For companies that come from countries whose language doesn’t differentiate between Du/du or Sie, or where a very personal form of address is normally used, a conscious decision can be made during the internationalisation process to retain this familiar form of address in the German-speaking area, even though it may be seem unusual in Germany. Because in doing so, a connection to the company's home country is established, giving it an innovative note.

How you address your clients is a very individual decision and relates to your company and your target clients. Therefore consider carefully the philosophy that your company lives by and which clients you would like to address.

An important tip to round off:

Regardless of which form of address you go for, ensure you are consistent in use. That way you’ll guarantee that your client feels spoken to.