When I was learning French back in high school and college, they told us of course that French had grammatical register, and that it was super important, and that a certain class of people had the privilege of being exalted with the glorious respect pronoun vous, and its corresponding verb forms. The lowly rabble were relegated to tu, and that lowly rabble necessarily included all us American kids.
Quick and dirty lesson for those who don’t know about French: there are two words for “you” in French, tu and vous. They like to say that tu is “informal” and vous is “formal.”
I also remember never having to vous anybody, and stressing out over having to do it, and most of all who the hell were these people that I had to exalt, and what was it that made them so damn special that they merited their own grammar? I had a very strong preference for informal register.
When we got to France, they told us in orientation that we should start out giving vous to our host parents, and that within a day or two they would chuckle and wave it off and give you permission to call them tu instead.
My host mother was Madame N, and her younger son C was about my age and living in the house. I gave C the vous treatment, which he dismissed immediately; he said we should call each other tu. His older brother S, who lived in his own house with his wife and kid also told me immediately to stop addressing him as vous. Meanwhile, everyone automatically addressed me as tu, including Madame N, C, S, the wife, and little K.
Madame N was the one who talked to me the most; we stayed at the table every night after dinner and chatted. That’s where I learned all my French, at the table with Madame N every night, drinking more wine than I was used to, and polishing off the Roquefort, which she advised me is eaten on a buttered slice of baguette; the butter is what takes it over the top. Try it, she said. She’s right of course; over the top!
To this day, I tell people who want to learn language: find a homestay and STAY AT THE TABLE after dinner. This was my custom in France, Italy, and Guatemala. In Spanish there’s even a word for it: la sobremesa… the conversation at the table after the meal is over and cleared.
Back to the story. A week went by, and Madame N had not given me permission to call her tu. Another week went by. And a third week. I asked my friends at school, and they all confirmed that they were all on a tu basis with everyone in their host families, and that the switch happened weeks ago.
I didn’t share with my classmates that I was still calling my host mother vous. To be honest, I theorized that Madame N didn’t like me very much, so she wanted to keep the formality… and I didn’t want to share that with my classmates because I was afraid to complain about anything. This is a thing, actually; when Americans go an expensive trip somewhere, even if they are not feeling they’re in the greatest of situations, they will always rave about it to their friends, to show that they hadn’t made bad choices, and they hadn’t thrown their money away. That’s why Americans rave so much. “Oh, I had a FABULOUS time, it was WONDERFUL!”
In any case, it was weeks and weeks into my homestay and I still hadn’t broken the vous barrier. I was a little bummed.
One night Madame N and I took a walk in the evening. I’m sure she just had to run an errand, but I offered to accompany her, just to see some Frenchies in action. On the way back there were some drunk looking thuggy thugs on the street, and I switched sides with Madame N so that I walked between her and them; I didn’t like the way they were looking at us. As we passed, one of them called out something I didn’t understand. I asked her later what they had said.
“Espèce de vieille!” she told me. I was a little taken aback because that is NOT NICE. Vieille means “old lady,” but putting espèce de before it made it really rude. Espèce de means “species of,” and it’s meant as a put down. Something like “Just some old lady.”
“Whatever,” Madame assured me, “I am an old lady.” We laughed, but then she told me about how some thuggy thugs once harassed her older son S, not with an adjective, but by calling him tu when they were strangers. Among grown men, those are fighting words.
Look at you, she told me. You have always showed me respect by calling me vous, I can tell you respect me and that you were brought up properly. But here, these men on the street don’t even know S and they call him tu, but they’re strangers, they’re not friends.
I felt like I learned a thousand things during that speech, at that very second. First, I learned that Madame N was proud of me for still calling her vous and that she took it as a reflection of my upbringing and my family. Second, that I my understanding of tu and vous was all wrong.
I had been taught that tu is the normal form of address, and that vous was a function of formality. Wrong.
What I learned that day, is that vous is the normal form of address and that tu is a function of intimacy. When a stranger calls you tu it is a violation of intimacy; as if someone has licked your ice cream, or pinched your nipple. It’s not appropriate.
After that moment and that realization, vous and all its corresponding forms came very naturally to me. I had no longer hoped for that point in the conversation where someone dismisses the vous in favor of tu, I was perfectly comfortable staying in the “formal” (i.e., normal) register. I don’t have to be on a tu relationship with everyone I meet, I don’t want to be intimate with everyone. Besides, it reflects well on my family; I may be the first and last Filipino American they ever meet; I had better reprezent.
When I studied Tagalog, I tried to talk to my dad once, but he broke the conversation and said in English, you should use the formal with your parents. Fine, I said, now I know. No one had ever told me that before. Easy.
When I learned Spanish and Italian, the matter of familiar and formal came very easy to me, and I never again felt that preference to address everyone in the familiar register.
Of course, there are time when I slip up; when I’m speaking a second language and I realize I’ve let a familiarity bomb slip. Oh the horror!
The trick is: no American flailing. Be smooth. If you let out a familiarity bomb, unintentionally calling someone tu when you have every intention of calling them vous, don’t get flustered and start Americo-apologizing. Just correct yourself and continue, as if it had been a stutter or a simple pronunciation mistake. If you catch yourself right away, you can give a quick “pardon,… ” and then immediately continue with what you were saying, without any flustering or flailing. They are not interested in dwelling on what is merely a grammatical mistake, and it is tedious if you insist on calling attention to it. Calling attention to mistakes is our culture, not theirs.
In France, the familiar/formal register issue is pretty uniform for the French speaking world. In languages with more diversity, like Spanish or Chinese, there may be regional differences. I went to Central America and learned how to us the vos pronoun, a regional familiar. My sister went to Central America and came back calling me usted, which as a linguistics major I understand they do where she was, but it weirded me out that my own baby sister was addressing me with the formal; I remember when she was little!
One last thing. Remember the old Washington Mutual Bank? I used their cash machines a lot because they didn’t charge a fee. But they had a corporate policy that their cash machines were going to be all chatty and familiar. So when I chose the Spanish option, the cash machine addressed me in the familiar register, as if we were friends. I felt scandalized; who does this cash machine think it is, talking to me like that?! It asked me, in a super familiar way, “¿Quieres un recibo?” as if we was boyz that go way back. But even more infuriating was that the two options were Sí, gracias, and no, gracias; “Yes please” and “no thank you.” It was presumptuous enough that that machine would address me in the familiar, but now on top of that the only choices I had to reply included “please,” and “thank you.” I wished for a third button, that said, ¿Quien sos vos que me hablás así? “Who the hell are you to talk to me like that? It was just the WaMu cash machines; other bank’s machines addressed me with usted, which as their customer I think I deserve.
No I don’t want a receipt; just give me my card back. I’m glad WaMu went under; their ATMs were OVERLY FAMILIAR. It was as if a stranger had licked my ice cream; or pinched my nipple. Not appropriate.