If you’re learning Dutch, you may find yourself confused when to switch between the informal and formal pronouns for “you,” jij and u, respectively.
It doesn’t help that many Dutch people seem unclear themselves on when to use what themselves, especially in social situations, giving learners little to go on.
On the other end of the spectrum, people from more informal languages, like English or Hebrew, may seem a bit too chummy in certain situations.
In this short guide, we’ll go over the difference between the two as well as try and give the situations when you should be formal and when you can hang loose.
When to use formal and informal language in the Netherlands
First things first, though: unless you’re dealing with somebody who is very particular about etiquette, you can default to the informal jij and chances are you’ll get away with it, especially in the Netherlands.
There may be some people who may be a little surprised by it, but you’re very unlikely to cause actual offence, especially if it’s clear you’re still learning.
This is in contrast to countries like Germany, France or Portugal, where people really will not like it and may react a little hostile, even. The Dutch are just a lot more relaxed about stuff like this.
Still, though, you may wonder when you should use the informal.
Interestingly enough, the answer is as much cultural as linguistic.
The Good Old Days
Not even that long ago, the rules were simple: everybody that wasn’t a close personal acquaintance or family member of the same age was addressed as u.
Your parents, your uncle, the guy who ran the shop on the corner, a stranger asking directions, they were all addressed formally.
This changed in the 60s, when the fabric of society was basically turned upside down inside of a few years.
This was due to the fact that the upcoming generation, the boomers of today, were tired of the uptight, conservative culture of the Netherlands of that time.
Though it’s hard to imagine now, up until then the Netherlands was a country where nothing happened, people did as they were told and everybody went to bed at 9 p.m.
The new generation wanted to change that, and they succeeded: society now is very different from how it was then.
More egalitarian, and thus more informal.
A good example is my maternal grandfather. Born in 1919, he expected me to call him u and was shocked I called my mother jij. He insisted my mother (born in the late 50s) called him u, too, though she largely ignored him.
In contrast, I think if I called my mother u, she’d probably check to see if I wasn’t coming down with something. It’d just be weird.
And it’s not just my family, either: if you look at books and TV shows from the 50s or before the characters all say u and address each other as meneer (mister) mevrouw (mrs.) or juffrouw (miss).
Only married couples or very good friends would call each other jij on screen.
Anything produced in the 60s and after lets go of this unless the character is supposed to be overly stuffy or formal, or it’s an exchange between a young person and an older person.
This is also where we find our first clue on when to use u.
When to say u
The best way to gauge whether or not you should say u is based on status and, as a secondary, how well you know somebody.
Let’s use a simple example, and one many readers are probably already familiar with: dealing with the government.
No matter if you’re dealing with the city, the tax office or the immigration service, the staff will always address you with u. Always.
This is because of your status (they’re there to help you, so your status for that exchange is higher) and they don’t know who you are, either, so it satisfies both requirements.
Interestingly enough, if you start saying jij while dealing with them, they will often start using it back, but we’ll get back to that later.
Another good example of status is age: for the first few decades after the 60s generally anybody older than you was addressed with u and anybody more or less your age or younger was jij.
The exception was anybody woke enough to use their first name only, so introduced themselves as Frank instead of meneer Jansen (yes, there was a time in the Netherlands when people introduced themselves as “mister so-and-so”).
However, that line has moved even further and further, so now it’s only people of advanced age and people you only know by the last names that get the u treatment. Again, it’s a combination of status and not knowing them.
For example, it’s considered impolite to say jij when dealing with seniors, so generally speaking anybody with gray hair gets an u.
However, here’s where it gets sticky: as using u is generally associated with ageing, some people will feel old when it’s said to them and will insist you use the informal with them.
I’m not even forty, and I tell you I felt an abyss open up when a young waitress called me u in a cafe the other day. I didn’t make an issue of it, but it was definitely a bit weird.
Generally speaking, if an older person introduces themselves by just their first name and seems kind of laid back, you can go with jij without worrying.
Formally addressing people in official roles in Dutch
Another group that gets the formal treatment are people acting in an official capacity.
Think people like the public servants we mentioned earlier, such as people manning the desks in city hall, policemen, firefighters, nurses, doctors, etc.
Also included are lawyers, which generally will address you with u and will not like it when you use jij.
Judges are definitely to be called u if you’re meeting them in any official capacity whatsoever, and they’re also probably the last people in the Netherlands (besides royals) to be addressed by their title, which is edelachtbare.
Not doing so is considered disrespectful, and you’ll be reminded to be polite only once. I doubt anybody has ever been stupid enough to find out what happens if you ignore that warning.
I’m not sure what will happen to you if you address any members of the royal family as jij, but why don’t you try it out and let us know the result :)
Switching to jij
In short, if you approach somebody and they’re older than you, work for the government and wear a suit or a uniform, you may want to play it safe and address them as u.
That way you’re hedging your bets a little; if they would prefer being informal, they will switch to jij as a signal to switch registers.
Now, here’s the trick: if you then insist on u after that, it means you want to stay formal and the person in question should switch back.
It works the other way around, too: so if you switch to jij after being addressed as u, and the other doesn;t match you, you then need to switch to u again or you’re the rude one.
We know, it’s kinda weird, but that’s because the rules for formality are so vague in the Netherlands.
Generally speaking, though, you should be okay just using jij with everybody, though not with judges or royalty.
That said, you may also just want to play it safe and call anybody acting in an official capacity u. It never hurts to be a little extra polite, and it’s better to be made fun of for being too formal than have somebody tackle offense at you for being too chummy.
Shops, bars and social situations
However, in most shops, bars and restaurants — except maybe really fancy ones — it’s a bit weird to use u.
The same goes for parties and other social situations.
Call anybody u then and you come across as very stuffy and maybe even unlikeable:
Dutch people don’t like formality as many feel it means that you think you’re better than them, a huge no-no.
Finally, note that these rules mostly count for the Netherlands. Flemish people are generally more formal than the Dutch, so you’ll hear u used a lot more often south of the border.
What you’ll also hear is the word gij, which is the old form of jij. It’s another important marker when distinguishing different Dutch dialects.
The Dutch got rid of it over the past few hundred years, but many Flemish speakers still use it.
It kind of sits between jij and u, but edges more toward the informal. It’s probably best to feel it out a little, but while you do so, we recommend defaulting to u in most situations, except maybe socially.
Final word on Dutch formality
Dutch is an example where getting rid of rules makes things more complicated, and the social etiquette surrounding the formal and informal “you” is a good example of that.
As a general rule, you can get away being informal, but there are situations where it pays to play it safe.
I hope this short guide helps you determine which is which.