German-speakers tend to be more formal and reserved than do some other cultures in conducting their personal and business affairs. As in other European languages, German has both a formal and a familiar form for you. The formal Sie is used to address strangers, business associates, and acquaintances (Bekannte, as opposed to close friends, Freunde), and for most situations outside the family.
For family and relatives, close friends, young children, pets, and God, the familiar du is used (ihr—“you guys”—in the plural). People in the same social group or class, such as students or factory workers, usually address each other as du, but white-collar workers and professionals rarely do so.
Although there has been a tendency in recent years towards less formality—generally, the younger the person, the more likely they are to use du instead of Sie—visitors from outside the culture are wise not to adopt this informal approach too quickly. It is better to risk being too formal rather than too familiar. When in doubt, use Sie. Think of Sie as the proper form to use when you might address someone as Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, rather than by their first name. Using a familiar, first-name approach in the wrong situation could be insulting or demeaning, a faux pas that one usually wants to avoid in any business and social dealings.
While the Germans and the Swiss (the Austrians less so) are often thought of as cold, and a friendship takes longer to establish, that friendship is often deep and enduring. Casual friendships, American style, are less common.
In Germanic-culture business situations, you should never use a person’s first name. It is too easy for Americans or other English-speakers to falsely assume that because a German-speaker is being friendly and congenial, it is all right to become more familiar. But such premature familiarity makes most Germans uncomfortable, even though they might not say so. It is advisable to allow your Austrian, German, or Swiss counterpart to decide when or if a less formal relationship is appropriate.
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