French Formality, What’s Going On?

Paris 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.




  1. findingthewritethings · March 26, 2013

    I have an informal and formal self. It kind if happened by accident haha! School and work go by my real name. Friends and family go by my nickname, which was given to me by my parents and has nothing to do with my real name. 😛 I’ve been going on with two names as long as I can remember!

  2. jacksonshen · March 26, 2013

    It is so interesting to see all these culture differences. Regarding formalities, if you travel between Denmark/Nordic countries and Germany, you will be surprised. As we all know in Germany you always call people’s last name with their titles. (One extreme case is: if someone has two Dr. title, you have to call him Dr. Dr. XXX. 😛 ). However, in Denmark, you always call people’s first name. There is no word meaning “please” in Danish. Danish say “Can you…” instead of “Would you like to…” German consider Danish are rude. But Dans say that this was a result of Social-democracy and equalization movement from 1970s.

  3. emilytoulouse · March 27, 2013

    My bf is French and I constantly have to edit his professional emails because he says things like “I dare to allow myself to write you…” and it is just way too much by American standards! The French are definitely more formal

    • Nika · July 29, 2013

      Emily! I know exactly what you mean.

  4. tenleadersleaping · April 28, 2013

    I love the wonderfully formalised versions of everyday statements by the immigrant population here in London. One of those many joys of mixing with the world on my doorstep.


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