French Culture: The Death of ‘Vous’?

My friend Jennie at ielanguages shared a fascinating article about the lack of “vous” on the internet and the increased appearance of “tu”, even when two people who don’t know each other are communicating.

My own experience with being ‘tued’ and ‘voued’ on social media came from one of my students who added me on Facebook. She sent me a few emails from time to time and she always addressed me with ‘vous’, although I knew I would always address her with ‘tu’ since I was her teacher and she was my student.

However the very day that I stopped being her teacher, she sent me an email and addressed me with ‘tu’. Now as an English speaker, I really didn’t give a shit whether she used tu or vous with me, but it was interesting to see once this idea of a social barrier in her head came down she felt free to talk to me like the young adult I am. Even though we had been more friends than student and teacher for a while, it wasn’t until I had that title of ‘teacher’ taken off that she felt she had the right to use ‘tu’.

I noticed this trend while living in France, particularly on Youtube, everyone addresses each other with ‘tu’. A part of me thinks this might be due to the impression that the internet is a ‘Gen Y’ domain, filled with under-30s who would always address each other with “tu” even when meeting for the first time.

I made this social blunder when I met some French people at a party in Finland. We were all under-25 (I was 20 at the time) and when I met one of the French guys there I started using ‘vous’ with him. I was taught in French class that you only used ‘tu’ when you got to know someone really well or if they were children. To me a child is someone under 18, and since we were all technically adults I thought ‘vous’ would be a good idea.

Turns out – it wasn’t. As I kept ‘vovoying’ this guy, he became more and more uncomfortable until he finally asked me to please use ‘tu’ with him.

Even though you may legally be an adult in France once you turn 18, you can ‘tutoyer’ (use tu) with people in the 18-25 bracket in the right context i.e. at a bar, at a friend’s party, in most situations really but older adults (people 30+) can still use ‘tu’ with you and yet still expect a ‘vous’ back.

Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ and think the French should just get rid of it like the English did during the Renaissance (you was our version of ‘vous’ and thee/thou was similar to ‘tu’) and here’s why:

1. It’s harder to conjugate ‘vous’

In French every verb will change depending on the pronoun (i.e. I, you, he, she etc) but when speaking French verb conjugation is a lot easier if you are using ‘tu’. The reason is that although the spelling might be different, the verb conjugations for ‘je’ (I) ‘il/elle/on” (he, she, we) and ‘tu’ often sound the same.

But the vous conjugation is often completely unique among the conjugations for that verb and is longer, making it harder to pronounce. When I conjugate using ‘tu’ I don’t have to think as much.

2. It creates a sense of hierarchy in society

I still don’t like the idea that I have to show respect to certain people by using ‘vous’ but they don’t have to use ‘vous’ with me back. It’s like they’re saying ‘I’m more important than you because of my age/position in society/job etc’. Especially now that I’m over 18, I feel there’s a lack of respect towards young adults, who may be legally adults but can be addressed with ‘tu’ by people who think they are more of an ‘adult’ than they are.

3. It’s personal and can change depending on where you live

– making it more confusing for us expats, and even for the French sometimes! Depending on the French speaking country or even the region in France some people will use ‘vous’ or ‘tu’ more often, in different contexts or take longer to go from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’.

A good example is when I went to join a gym in Dunkerque and one of the trainers was showing me the gyms facilities, the whole time he used ‘tu’ with me. I thought this was a bit strange, since we were in a formal setting of him trying to sell me a gym membership and it put me in a tricky situation. Should I use tu with him as well?

I asked one of my French friends Virginie about it and she furrowed her brow and said “Well, he really should have used vous with you”. However another French friend told me that didn’t shock him and was acceptable ‘because I was young’.

Hm… confusing huh?

So frankly, if this is the beginning of the death of ‘vous’ (although in reality, I highly doubt it) than adieu et au revoir Monsieur Vous – and I don’t care if I never see you again.

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One thought on “French Culture: The Death of ‘Vous’?

  1. What cracks me about Joffrin is that he says he doesn’t like the hierarchy imposed by automatically using tu on Twitter – which is so hypocritical considering that he expected people to use vous with him, which is also imposing hierarchy among people! He doesn’t like the people on Twitter who they’re superior to others (which I don’t agree with or even understand why he would think that…) while at the same time thinking that he is superior to others and so everyone should use vous with him.

    I am all for everyone just using one form of you like in English. Much less confusing and easier to learn!

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