Wednesday, 23 April 2014

T is for Tutoyer

Tu or Vous? That is the perennial question when chatting to people in France.

We all know from school that vous is polite and tu is familiar, but in reality it is just not as clearcut as that.

Children are easy. I work on the rule of thumb that anyone young enough to be still at school merits a tutoyer, although it gets a little misty around the age of 18. There is a young man who comes for classes in English who is in his final year at school and preparing for the Bac. He is huge. A rugby player and all round jolly tall chap, he towers over me which makes the use of tu seem a little inappropriate.

People one deals with in public life - at the shops, the doctors, the bank, the long list of government agencies you have to deal with if you run a small business - are also easy. Its vous all the way with no deviation.

The tricky bit is how to address those people you chat to regularly. Friends seem to drop into tu quite quickly but there are so many others, acquaintances, neighbours, where it is all as clear as mud.

We have known our delightful neighbours for seven years. We have shared aperitifs and afternoon tea. We have discussed each other's gardens and even gone through the process of re-routing a shared right of way. Yet we still use vous. They are retired and are older than us, and I was always taught that one should wait for the older person to initiate the tutoyer. Occasionally I have slipped up in conversation and used tu and felt my blushes rising. But no comment has been made, and we still vousvoyer.

A friend was here at the weekend and he was telling us that he has been working in his current job for two years and is still vousvoying with his boss. So the complication does not just arise for foreigners in France. The French struggle with it too. He says that sometimes, they will have a conversation and tu will be used, but the very next day, his boss will be vousvoying again. And as a subordinate and the younger person he does not feel able to broach the subject.

We Brits are possibly luckier. We can mess it up and use the familiar form inappropriately and it will simply be put down to the ignorance of l'etranger. Pity the poor Frenchman and his daily struggle with avoiding a faux pas.

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