A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend in Paris. There I met up with a friend of friend, Clement, and we talked about the difference in language formality between French and English. When is the informal “you” form used? When is the formal “you” form used?
Formal = vous
Informal = tu
Seems simple, but even the French aren’t always sure of which one to use. It’s similar to Russian and Spanish, but each language has its own nuances, and I wanted to hear what people had to say. Well, here is what I learned:
Clement works with HP, an American corporation with an office in Paris. Being an American company in France, HP has undergone an interesting cultural phenomenon; employees, who usually use the formal “you” with their bosses, are now being told to use the informal “you” because HP is an American enterprise, and the English language does not differentiate between the two forms!
While this development does not particularly bother Clement, it does upset my French host dad. “Je ne support pas ça,” he says, meaning, “I can’t stand that.” In his opinion, like in the opinions of many others, there needs to be a barrier between formality and informality, between “private” and “public” life. According to him, you are not to use people’s names in the workplace; you are to use their last names, as it has been done for years, and as it “should remain.” He sees “name-calling” (as opposed to last-name-calling) as a product of Americanization. And I can’t completely disagree.
I have seen aspects of US culture pervade France. There are numerous American television programs, for example, and the radio plays American music incessantly. (Pardon the heavy connotation, but the café in which I am currently sitting is playing Rihanna. Again). In fact, there has been so much American music on the radio, that the French government has set a minimum quota for French songs!
Why, if at all, does this matter, and what can we get out of this anecdote? First and foremost, in comparing your culture to the culture of others’ you can consider and reconsider elements of both—perhaps things to which you’ve never given much thought. For me, considering the pervasion of American songs, television and the occasional changes of formality in the French workplace, I see some negative reactions but also the reinforcement of years upon years of culture in a countermovement to preserve older traditions. I think I can say that now I appreciate the juxtaposition from a different standpoint. And I attribute that to the beauty of travel.