Monday, May 07, 2012

All About VOUS

What right do you have to speak to me?!”

The above question, when spoken in French, and in France, and uttered with just the right blend of arrogance and disgust, has the verbal power of a swift kick in the Gallic family jewels, so it is said.

A French student of mine told me that when she was a young girl and beginning to travel about in Paris on her own, she was to demand that phrase (but in French, of course) of any stranger who spoke to her: “De quel droit m’adressez-vous la parole?”

Here in the semi-egalitarian U.S., we generally feel everyone has “the right” to talk to everyone else; it’s what comes out of the mouth that matters. And most of the time, what comes out are benign comments about the weather; a request for directions or to take one’s picture; or the inevitable shared eye-rolling and related chit-chat when standing in line at the post office or grocery store.

Wherever people go in the United States, we are constantly speaking and sharing off-the-cuff opinions or remarks with people we don’t know and may never see again. Partly, that’s the American culture – but the relative informality of our language helps us: for instance, unlike in other languages, English has only one “you” and speakers are not required to consider social status or age difference or even gender.

The French culture, by nature more formal and social-conscious than American, uses its language to keep strangers at bay, beginning with the strategically loaded pronoun, “you.” French has two forms of “you”: one informal, “tu,” for showing closeness to friends, relatives, children, and pets; and one formal, “vous,” for showing respect and formality to authority figures and elders; using “vous” also helps maintain a certain social distance – between not-so-close friends, and of course, those of a different class. The two “you”s help keep relationships clear, you could say.

Meanwhile, in our English “one-You” world, keeping such distinctions clear is not always possible - or necessary – such as in post office lines, the grocery store, asking for directions or offering help, etc. We are a people who love to comment out loud, and having someone to share a complaint about the weather with tends to give us a boost. And not having to think about what “you” to use gives us freedom to have such random exchanges – what may sound personal to foreigners are really just ways we connect in a light, non-personal way.

Just the other day, I was eating a banana while standing at a corner on Park Avenue (New York being a capital of schmooze), waiting for the light to change. The man next to me said, “A banana! Now you’re making me feel guilty – I just ate a hot pretzel!” I just laughed and chided him on his nutritional habits before we both went our merry ways.

Practically speaking, this sort of exchange is impossible in French. To begin with, what “you” could you pick? You couldn’t use “tu” – using “tu” with any stranger who is not a child is insulting for the person being addressed; nor would “vous” be any good for a casual, light-hearted remark when the pronoun is specifically designed for formality and distance.

Between French people, it’s a linguistic oxymoron to have an informal exchange with someone (i.e., a stranger) you need to hold at a distance. A French friend agreed that making casual remarks to strangers is extremely awkward – and if attempted at all, would come off sounding like an emergency, or just simply weird.

A French airline pilot who often visits New York says he enjoys hearing Americans share little remarks with each other when on the street or subway. “You are a country made from pioneers,” he said. “Your culture was formed by helping each other, and sharing. Ours was not.”

When a person walks into a store in Paris, “bonjour” (“good day”) is exchanged between customer and sales person. But in the US, sales people typical say, “Hello, how are you today?” This greeting, according to several college-age French exchange students in New York, both astonished and embarrassed them. “Why would a stranger want to know how am I doing? Only people I know well ask me how I am,” one of the students explained. 

Of course, there were times long ago when English was quite formal: in Shakespeare’s time and earlier, there were two forms of “you” – “thou/thee” for more poetic use as a single pronoun and spoken to family and close friends (as in, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”); the plural form, “you,” was the one used with strangers and authority figures. Over time, though, it was the less formal “thou” that got pushed out of everyday use, while the more formal “you” took over as the sole dominant form. Constant use dropped the formality of “you,” while “thou/thee” became perceived as formal, being used in only ceremonies, the Bible, and theater.

While today’s French may be much more informal than two hundred years ago, the rules regarding the use of “tu” and “vous” – and all the implications those rules represent – seem still very much in place. Thus, “vous” retains a strong hold in French manners – highlighting social distance and nuance in a way that Americans visiting France are generally excused for not understanding.

But see if you can find the “French” attitude in this English translation of a French joke:

A kangaroo walks into a café and asks for an espresso. He sits down at the counter, the barista gives him the espresso and the kangaroo pays 20 euros for the drink. The man next to him speaks up:

Man: Hello. How are you? (Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?)
Kangaroo: Fine … and you? ( vous?)
M: Pretty good. (Assez bien!)
K: But why are you talking to me? We don’t know each other. (Mais pourquoi m'adressez-vous la parole? On ne ce connaît pas!)
M: Well, it’s not every day a kangaroo comes into the café! (Bah, c'est que des kangourous comme vous on en voit pas souvent ici, dans ce bar!)
K: With espresso for 20 euros, that doesn’t surprise me! (Avec le café à 20 euros ça m'étonne pas!!)

If you caught the kangaroo’s line, “Why are you talking to me? We don’t know each other,” then you have grasped the essence of this blog. But just to make sure …

To fully test your new understanding of French street spontaneity (or lack thereof), try translating the following real-life dialogue between two random New Yorkers who don’t know each other. The setting is a chilly fall day that came after three warm days. A woman is walking along Madison Avenue, when a well-dressed man walking in the same direction speaks as he passes her:

Man: The one day I don’t wear a coat!
Woman (after turning to see that he is not crazy – just in need of a coat - says): Why not get a $5 scarf from the sidewalk vendor up the street?
Man: Good idea! Do you think beige would go?”
Woman: (Looking at his outfit) Perfect!
(The man stops at the table; the woman keeps walking.)

Now an imagined English version of the French, according to their cultural and linguistic parameters:

French man:
French woman:

If you realized that such an exchange could not ever take place, you are correct. The man is cold and under-dressed, but how could he possibly share this with a woman he does not know (and is not even interested in)? Words never even make it to his tongue.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s say the man starts to comment to the woman about the weather and how he should have worn a coat. The woman, suspecting he is either lecherous or crazy or both, lashes out, “De quel droit m’addressez-vous la parole?!”

The man slinks off to a café to warm up and finds himself sitting next to a kangaroo …