Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Vous or Tu?

In one more of what will probably become an unplanned series of posts, we find ourselves face to face yet again with another cultural distinction between France and the US that is expressed through language.  

The "tu versus vous" nuance has become very interesting to me, because I realize it slows me down when speaking to someone until it's become clear which is going to be used.  For those who don't speak French, what this is is a way to formalize how one refers to the other person in a conversation.  The use of "vous" is formal (as well as always being the plural form of "you" - for you Texans, it's the "y'all").  The use of "tu" is informal.  So when to use which?  It's so important a distinction, in fact, that once a change from "vous" to "tu" is made, there's no going back.  It means the two people have crossed a barrier of some sort, into the world of an informal relationship, and a more intimate one.  

Well, we Americans want to be informal with everyone.  We have had presidents who want to offer up neck massages in public to German prime ministers, in fact.  That's just who we are.  So, this is really hard to understand.  And without knowing just what word to use in order to not seem too forward or insulting, it's often been shutting me down until I understand how the other person is going to use it.  I'm sure that's not how the French do it, and so I asked.

I was told it's a matter of showing respect.  OK, so a student says "vous" to a teacher, always.  The teacher may or may not do likewise with the student (depends on the age of the student, perhaps - young children get "tu" while adult students get "vous" - I have no idea what happens with high school age students).  In business, you "vous" your way up the ranks, while maybe the higher-ups say "tu" in response?  Again, I have no idea.  And as for first introductions, always a "vous."  And with large age differences, always "vous" when speaking to the older person.  

Perhaps not so hard to grasp, but it doesn't really make sense to me.  For example, at dinner with a family of two generations, in which I know the member of the younger generation very well but have only met the parents (who are my age) a couple of times, the young person always uses "vous" with me, when I'd prefer to be informal with her and would also prefer that she be informal with me (but she won't).  And the parents - well, I'm not sure when the "switch" is to properly occur.  It's exhausting!  

I included the newspaper article above because it shows just how symbolic this distinction is, not simply verbally, but in the entire meaning of how close two people are.  This article appeared right after François Hollande won the Socialist Party primary here recently.  It indicates, in the blown up language in the second photo, that the two rivals (he and France's President Sarkozy) are close in real life, that they are so intimate, in fact, that they use the "tu" form of "you" to addresss each other.  It basically translates to "They "tu" each other in real life."  There are even verbs for this - "tutoyer" and "vouvoyer." 

French, gotta love it!

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