Thursday, July 1, 2010

To Tutoyer or Not?

My French teacher apologized the other day, stopping in the midst of the article we were reading about the implications of the recent elections in Belgium, to express her regret that she had slipped into using the familiar "tu" form of the word "you" with us, rather than the more formal "vous." Did she get a lecture from her superior? Or did she just wake up in the middle of night and cringe with shame at the realization that she had slipped into the territory of family and friends without asking permission to do so?

My classmates, thankfully, had the same reaction as me. No problem. After all, we've been with her for almost two years now. She's warm and friendly and does her best to decode the mysteries of French politics, culture, history, whatever, answering a million silly questions, always with good humor. So no offense taken.

My default position has always been to use "vous," as a safeguard against offending anyone with whom I might be talking. I always just figured that it's a better bet to be on the more formal side. But there's a trap. You should never "vous" a child, for example. And yes, I'm the idiot talking to the two year old like he's a professor or something. But even more importantly, once someone starts tutoying you, you really don't want to create the impression (by your continued use of "vous"), that you want to maintain a respectful distance. It can be kind of like saying, "I don't really want to be your friend." And that's certainly not a message I want to be sending.

Sigh. Some day, I'm hoping, this will all be second nature. Just not yet.

10 comments:

Lisa said...

Isn't it interesting that the French have a built in gauge to determine where your relationship stands. My daughter's host mom had the same discussion with her about tu and vous and the level of familiarity required to graduate from the vous relationship to the tu relationship.

Andi said...

This one is so tough! My mother-in-law still vous friends that she has had for more than 30 years!

Sweet Freak said...

Merde. I have been tutoyer'ing as a default, as I heard it's almost insulting to be too formal with someone you know and/or see regularly. This formality - when and with whom - totally stresses me out. Still.

Starman said...

I was told by several people that I should be tutoyering them. I replied that I would if I knew how. I'm still not really sure how to use verbs and stuff when using tu.

Sasho said...

When I met one of my French 3rd cousins, he brought his grandchild. I have much less facility in French than you, A., and of course, I was trying to go back and forth between "vous" and "tu" and not too successfully. The look on the child's face as I said "vous" to her was a mixture of disbelief, what an idiot, and a gallic shrug. (Yes, I could see the shrug on her face.) Did it cure me? Made me self-conscious anyway.

Anonymous said...

like you I play safe and use vous when I am not sure which one to use. But always use tu if the person is younger than me - even if they respond with vous!

Younger people seem to be more generous with tu than older ones.

Its a minefield isn't it?

Eli
x

Gina said...

Argh...I am WITH you! I have always used vous as the default too, but when I started dating a guy who spoke NO English, I had the hardest time switching to tu. He was regularly confused about the nature of our relationship. ;)

On another note, as another (another) American living in Paris, I'd love to know more about where you're taking French. I've been at La Sorbonne, mais c'est très cher! Thanks for any info!

Charlie said...

Hey, I'm an American trying to speak French in Paris. I say what pops out of my mouth. They know my French isn't great. 99% of the people appreciate the effort. I really don't worry about it. If they get snobby about it (it hasn't happened) why would I care what they think???

Mary Ellen said...

I teach Pilates, and tend to use tu. People realize that I'm American and accustomed to being more friendly more quickly than French, and are not typically offended. Most often they switch over to tu as well. It's too hard for me to keep track of who to vous and who to tu, so I go with tu, and if they continue with tu, I try to switch back, but if I come across as too friendly is that a problem?

Rosabell said...

Using "tu" can be very insulting not only in French but in many other european languages,like Italian,German, Rumanian,Russian or Greek. It is a form of disrepect in most of the Europeans languages. I have been calling my mother in law "vous" for over 18 years and I will never switch to "tu" . I use "tu" for the people hierarchly under my position, for kids and for close [people I have known for ages and I always use "vous" in public relations no matter the age or social standard of the person I am talking to. Anyway, the idea is that, as much as you are puzzled by the tu/vous thing we are sometimes puzzled and offended by the generic "You" who makes everything and everyone equal ... My father told me once he would never learn English, because this is the language who makes him the linguistic equal of a punk and he gave up being an Orange customer because when he was calling the operator, he was bother by the answering machine addressing to him with " tu" instead of "vous". When they asked him why he was leaving he said he hadn't studied at the same school with the recorded message and that it was to much to put up with something that rude on his own money ... On the other hand, when we interact with americans we do not expect them to figure out things like this and we don't mind if they don't know how to handle it. It would bother us if they stayed here longer and did not learn our way of being polite ,but for occasional talking it doesn't reilly matter.

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