The trouble with the German Language: «du» or «Sie»?

«My, my. Perhaps the world is becoming a kinder place.»
«You say kinder. I say weaker and less disciplined.»
Downton Abbey

German is an interesting language, and a useful one, for talking to dogs. But its differentiation between a formal «you» [«Sie»] and an informal «you» [«du»] makes it complicated. You would use «Sie» for bosses, strangers, and the like, if there is a difference in social status or in a more formal setting. You’d use the much more informal «du» for most (closers) acquaintances, friends, and family.

Or at least, it was. There is a general trend in removing distinctions and — for a lack of a better term — remove discrimination between people. Sure, discrimination is often considered as wrong, but it essentially just means that you notice a difference between two kinds of people.

And when it comes to students, there is a difference between students and lecturers. After all, the later decide whether the former pass their studies, and how well. That is a major difference in status.

And if it’s only in the context of lectures, seminars, exams, etc., it’s easy to decide what to use — «Sie» all the way. After all, it is a formal context, you are not their equal. You are giving grades, decide on pass or fail. And that distance is really helpful. After all, who wants to pass just because they are friends with the examiner? Yeah, some students would consider it, but many wont. They want to earn their grades.

But what if that students is also working as a student assistant (e.g., a colleague)? Then you’d use «du», after all, you’re working together on something.

And that’s what makes German so infuriating, sometimes there is not easy or clear answer. As someone who was a student assistant who really fucked up during an exam — in which I was on «du» with the examiner, and as an examiner who did grade students I knew from different contexts, yeah, it sucks.

So far, the best solution I have found is a strict differentiation of the contexts. When I talk to a student in the context of studying, of qualification works, exams and grades, I use the formal «Sie». If it’s about the work as a student assistant, or outside the university context, I use «du». And yeah, for the same student I use different terms depending on the context.

It sucks, but it works. Somewhat.

At least no student will face the question I had after an abysmal exam (and a possibly deserved bad grade): Did I pass because it was at least good enough not to fail, or did I pass because I work in the department and literally could end the ICT infrastructure on a whim?