25 November 2010

Forms of Formality

This week in French class we explored the cultural nuances of you. No, not you, you silly narcissist, but "you," the always-fascinating second-person singular/plural personal pronoun as it appears in français. We're talking the informal "tu" and formal "vous" forms.

In English, "you" is so easy. We use the same word whether we're talking to a toddler who's just dumped a load in his diaper or to our boss who may be even more full of shit.

In French, not so easy. When speaking to someone you're just beginning to know, whether you choose to use the informal "tu" or formal "vous" can make the difference between being snubbed or accepted, or between getting laid or deported.

Our class of international students (Brazil, Portugal, Egypt, Germany, Venezuela, Congo, Lebanon, Vietnam, and a couple other countries I forget) discussed all this with our teacher, Nathalie, who, by the way, could read a sewer cleaning manual in French and make it sound like music. Some of us described the varying levels of language formality in our own countries, and Nathalie explained that, in Suisse-Romande (French-speaking Switzerland), one can say (translating) "hi" (salut) to a friend, but only "hello" (bonjour) to someone with whom you're not friends. We didn't get around to discussing how to give the finger to a respected colleague.

We ended our discussion by voting on whether we would all like to use "tu" or "vous" with each other. It was unanimous, but, thank goodness, we stopped short of a group hug.


  1. If it can make you feel better (probably not) the tu/vous choice can also be tricky when your a native French speaker (I am). It also depends on everyone's background, I have a hard time to switching to "tu" with an older person in a professional environment, even if I'm asked to. It's also weird (I'm in my 30's) to tutoyer someone my age in a bar or a club, but vousoyer the same person in a more formal environment. I found myself tutoyer a university professor once because he was a friend of a friend I met in an informal environment, but that I would have never dared to tutoyer if he had been my teacher...

    So don't feel too bad if you don't always know what to use. I've found myself in awkward situations where I would avoid any sentence with a tu/vous formulation (I know, pathetic.)

    This is why I like when I get to speak English in a professional environment, it makes things so much easier. But the tu/vous difference exists in many languages, including German...

  2. Thanks for the perspective, Jo. What I find really strange is the idea that I'm suppose to ask someone if I can tutoyer them. AWKWARD! If they say no, I'm going to feel like I've just failed some sort of mysterious cultural test. ... Whereas, of course, it's probably just that I'm rather obnoxious, and they want to keep their distance.

  3. I never thought about that, but yes, that'd be very awkward.

    - Shouldn't we tutoyer?
    - No, I'd rather not.

    Haha. Well. I guess the safe way is to wait until the other suggests it, unless they're also non French-speaking, in which case you can blame it on the other person ;-)

  4. I know someone -- une Suisse -- who was rebuffed that way. She had a new colleague, German, I think, who was very friendly and jovial with everyone, but when she casually asked if they could tutoyer, he refused, much to her surprise.