To Vouvoie or not to Vouvoie

By Ted John

Respect. To me, this is such a dynamic word that can be conveyed (or not conveyed) in so many different ways, depending on the culture and context of any given country or people group. In France, one of the ways respect is conveyed is through the French language, and more precisely, whether “to vouvoie or not to vouvoie” (this is me using a combo of French + English, i.e. franglais, in case you were wondering what vouvoie was).

“To vouvoie,” or in its true French infinitive form, “vouvoyer,” is the verb that means “to address someone as vous.” As a follow up, you are probably thinking, what/who is “vous”? It translates to “you” in English, but with a certain element of respect, formality, or social distance. Correspondingly, there is another “you” or “tu” with a less formal connotation, used among friends, family, children, in churches and other social groups. This brings us to the verb, “tutoyer,” which means “to address someone as tu.” The English language doesn’t really have a distinction between these two forms. Thus, you can imagine some of the questions I’ve asked myself:

  • After you meet someone and start to become friends, how do you know when to transition from vous to tu? 
  • What if you start to tutoie, then decide you don’t want to be friends with them anymore; do you revert back to vous? 
  • If you vouvoie someone (and they think you're on tutoie terms), will they be offended? 
  • If you tutoie someone (and they don't think you're at that level of closeness), will they be offended for you this mismatch in closeness perception? 

Hence, the title of the post: to vouvoie or not to vouvoie. That is the question. At least for me in France, not infrequently, as someone who is trying to be culturally appropriate and respectful. For French natives, this comes second nature to them. For English speakers trying to learn French and understand French culture, it requires more processing time.

(Aside: If interested, here is a 1-minute comedy video (in French) poking fun at this very topic.)

I remember one of the first times this topic was brought up in conversation with a real French person. It was after a Sunday church service (at a local French church), and I was talking with the Pastor. At that time, I was using the vous form with him. Then, in the middle of the conversation, he suddenly brought up whether we should start to tutoie, and I responded, sure why not? And since then, we have been on tutoie terms. Apparently, according to other French colleagues, this is not an uncommon way for the transition to happen. I also later found out that most people in the church setting commonly use “tu” to address everyone anyhow, with the idea that everyone is brother and sister in the same family of God.

Interestingly enough, the two forms of addressing you as vous or tu exists to a degree in some form in a variety of other languages, including German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian (non-exhaustive list). Who’d have thought?

It also sort of exists in the Korean language, but it’s called an honorific form, and applies to not only verbs, but also nouns (like 2 ways to say the word food, one more respectful than the other) and the way you address someone (like a more respectful way of saying Mister or Miss). Since I’m a Korean-American, the idea of respect expressed in language and culture is not a new concept for me. In the Korean culture, people bow to show respect, and one or both people might bow depending on the situation. Growing up, it was normal and expected of me to greet my parents' Korean friends in this way, as well as the parents of my Korean friends, my own relatives, and pretty much all other Korean adults.

From the Korean language standpoint, not using the honorific form when situationally indicated would be offensive and disrespectful, so perhaps this is why I’ve been drawn to make parallels between Korean and French.

Another reflection point is on how different cultures address God. Do they vouvoie or tutoie God? In the Korean language and culture, God is addressed respectfully and appropriately in the honorific form. This is based on the desire to give honor and respect in an attempt to reflect how great and majestic God really is. Not surprisingly, I incorrectly assumed the same would apply to French. So in French, God is also addressed respectfully and appropriately, but in the “tu” form as a way to capture the closeness and familiarity of the relationship with God.

Looking ahead to Burundi (T-minus 3 weeks), it will be interesting to observe the differences and similarities between the Burundian language and culture and that of France or Korea (or the US), particularly in regards to respect. What is considered respectful in one culture, whether a gesture or the way you address someone, may be considered disrespectful in another culture, and vice versa. Thankfully, I have some teammates in Burundi who have already paved the path a little for us and who can give us a head start in the do’s and don’t-do’s.

All that to say, it is pretty amazing that God made all of us, and that He is the author of all people, cultures, and languages. He understands each one of us, and He knows what’s in our hearts, even if we don’t convey it a certain way in action or in words. It reminds me of this passage that gives us a glimpse of heaven:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” – Revelation 7:9-10.

Taking a break from studies to enjoy the outdoors in France!

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

This is fascinating and sounds more complicated than it probably is ;)