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Name Games

As a follow up to my post on les bises, I’d like to talk more about an aspect of French that ties in ideas of language and culture: the tu versus vous distinction, both translated by the pronoun ‘you’ in English. In any French class, you will learn this distinction very early on, and will be told, more or less, that tu is an informal way of addressing someone, whereas vous is formal (or used for plural you, as in ‘you all’). For example, suggests the following uses of each:

Tu is the familiar "you," which demonstrates a certain closeness and informality. Use tu when speaking to one
·         friend
·         peer / colleague
·         relative
·         child
·         pet

 is the formal "you." It is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance or formality with someone. Use vous when speaking to
·         someone you don't know well
·         an older person
·         an authority figure
·         anyone to whom you wish to show respect

It seems straightforward enough, right?

I’ve found that personally, this tu or vous distinction is much like ‘les bises’ I discussed in a former post. It’s something you have to feel, and with time you realize that it’s actually part of a very complex set of cultural codes. 

Here are some things I’ve learned that make the tu or vous distinction difficult:

1. “Est-ce que vous pouvez m'aider, s’il te plait?”
It takes time to develop (linguistically) the tu/vous distinction. It’s common for French students to overuse tu while they’re learning French because it is often the form they use the most in the classroom, talking to other students. And there are also certain automatic utterances students learn that are in the tu form, commands like attends (wait, informal), instead of attendez (wait, formal), or s’il te plaît (please) instead of s’il vous plaîtI remember when I was a beginning French student, I sometimes addressed a person as tu and vous in the same sentence! 

2. Hello, shall we tutoie, or vouvoie?  
In some cases, French people will establish the tu or vous distinction when they meet. I’ve been in situations with other adults, where one of the first points in conversation is, ‘On se tutoie, hein?’ translated by, ‘We’ll use tu with one another, okay?’. I always appreciate these moments when it’s made explicitly clear what I should call someone.

I’ve also learned that certain environments tend to be more informal and thus people automatically use tu, without stating it explicitly. One example is a city band I played in. Because it was a leisure activity, even though there were people of many different ages together, it was considered a more informal environment and people used tu. The same goes for my gym, where the first day the main secretary explained to me ‘Here, we act like a family, and we use tu with one another.’ They have even created a joke poster, saying that any gym user who addresses a staff member with vous will need to buy them a pack of m&m’s. I guess my sensitivity to the vous/tu distinction has developed some, since at first I found this imposed use of tu at my gym very artificial and unnatural.

3. From vous to tu
In other cases, there is a moment when you can transition from vous to tu. However, this transition is one of the trickiest elements of this distinction, in my opinion. I learned, for example, that with certain people, using vous over time can maintain a certain distance that isn’t always desired. For example, when I studied abroad, the main secretary of our program was French. We got used to greeting her everyday as we arrived, and saying goodbye as we left, and we used vous with her. But later on as we got to know her better, one student asked if she could address her with tu. The secretary responded happily that they could use tu with one another, and in fact, she preferred it with students. It established a closer relationship.

This can also go for work relationships. I more or less asked my boss if we could address one another by our first names (and implicitly use tu), because I had heard my colleagues do the same. It seemed like the work environment was thus fairly informal and people had close relationships with one another, so it seemed logical for me to try to fit into this environment, rather than remain formal and distant using vous.

4. When distance is desired
Sometimes I’ve learned that the distance created by vous can be an advantage, or a sort of way to remind people of social conventions. Whenever I’ve heard strangers in an argument in public, when it gets really nasty, people use tu with one another. In using tu, you are eliminating the language barrier that establishes a certain level of distant respect for the other person. So in this sense, it makes sense that people insulting one another would use tuAnother example is when you’re a woman and you get hit on, the person addressing you may likely use tu. If you respond to them using vous, you are re-establishing a social distance (and your disinterest!).

And so this is a short recap of just some of the complications involved with using tu or vous. This is a great example of the pragmatic competence that you need to develop in learning a foreign language. It’s not just the words you need to learn, but how they’re used, and in what contexts.  


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