Blog, A Dutch dilemma: ‘u’ or ‘jij’?

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A Dutch dilemma: ‘u’ or ‘jij’

When you approach an elderly person you should say ‘u’ and when you talk to anyone that is under twenty-five you say ‘je’ or ‘jij’. At least that is how my father taught me, but he is ‘van de oude stempel’ (Dutch proverb for being a bit conservative).

It seemed like a simple rule to me when I grew up but now that I am an adult myself it just doesn’t seem so simple anymore. When I do my best to be polite and say ‘u’ people often seem offended because it makes them feel so old. They sometimes react as if I am actually telling them that I think they are much older than I am. And often they are but they still feel young. At the same time others consider it very bold if you say ‘je’ or ‘jij’ to them.

The other day, I went to see the dentist. He has been my dentist for ten years now. He is a few years younger than me. But we were always saying ‘je’ to each other. At this last appointment he suddenly asked me ‘Hoe gaat het met u?’ (‘How are you?’) en ‘Heeft u nog kiespijn?’ (Are you still having a tooth ache?’). I was in shock. The last time I saw him was six months before and he didn’t say ‘u’ then. For some reason I turned into ‘u’ in these last couple of months. I probably looked young, dynamic and informal back then but not anymore? I went straight to the gym after the dentist appointment. Let’s hope it was a one time mistake.

In English it is simple. When you talk to an elderly you say ‘you’ and when you talk to an infant you say ‘you’ as well. In Dutch it is a little bit more tricky than that. That is why I will recommend you to stick to my guideline. Do as my father use to say, say ‘u’ to everybody over twenty-five. In this case it’s a good thing that the Dutch are so direct: they will tell you immediately if they prefer to be approached with ‘je’ or ‘jij’. It is always the oldest or most important one -for example your boss- who can take the initiative of telling you that you can say ‘je’ or ‘jij’. But be sure to remember their preference because if you insist to call them ‘u’, when in fact they asked you to say ‘je??, it definitely won’t be good for your new relationship.

In general I suggest you use ‘u’ for strangers and ‘je’ or ‘jij’ for friends. Although sometimes it is convenient to keep on calling people ‘u’ although they have asked you not to. If you don’t like someone it creates a certain distance.

Please tell us how the ‘u’/ ‘jij’ situation is in your language or tell us your experiences with this Dutch dilemma. You can leave your comments below or visit our facebook page http://www.facebook.com/prolingua.nl and leave your comments there.