The British like to keep it simple. Simple grammar, short words – and no social distinction whatsoever between people. However, it is that simplicity that is going to make explaining the initial problem to you so hard. YOU is the problem. You may think now that I didn't even get the one conjugation there is in the English language but that is not the case: The Tu-vous-phenomenon is just so hard to explain in a language that doesn't know a difference between a formal and a non-formal way of addressing people.

But... If there's no problem in English, why are we talking about this?

Those of you from non English speaking countries might be too familiar with this. Many languages still distinguish between two kinds of people - the ones who are relatively close to you and can be addressed in a non-formal way and those to whom you should better show some respect and therefore only address in a more formal way. To keep things as simple as possible I will refer to it from now on as the "tu" and the "vous" form, stealing from the French.

The French are not the only ones who hang in there: on the continent there still seems to be a need to impose reference on some people. France is not the only country with a highly hierarchical culture. For instance, the cliché of the orderly and obedient German also works in this context: the worst nightmare of any young person is to meet the girl- or boyfriend's parents. There is a no way of predicting how they want to be addressed. Normally, you would use "Sie" (which is "vous") for anyone who is yet unknown to you - apart from other young people - and anybody you have to show respect to, like teachers, professors, neighbours and even some acquaintances of your parents. But which is the right category for the parents of your beloved? Are they kind of family or close (hopefully friendly) people now? Or do you want to show them your utmost respect because they have to give up their baby for you? Even if they introduce themselves with their first names, problems don't end, because of the possibility to combine first name and "Sie". Some of my friends avoided talking to their girl- or boyfriend's parents directly for years using only abstract sentences!

Photo: Pamela Adam (CC BY-SA 2.0)
"Please do tell me, good Sir, would You be so kind and help me build a sand castle, good Sir?"

exaggerating your accent and other practical solutions

This might sound like a typical German issue but apparently even in countries not under the suspicion of being uptight and hierarchically structured you find the same difficulties.

Take Manuel from Spain for example: "As I come from Andalusia and there we tend not to say the last consonants, when I don't know how to address a person, I exaggerate my accent so I don't sound wrong. In the end, it sounds as if I always use the formal form because I never say the letter –s" - you would need that "s" to conjugate the tu-form - "so people can always think that I'm a very well educated person!" So Spanish might not be as strict as German and the vous-form is only used to address strangers and on very formal occasions but in the end you find the same obstacles there.

And it doesn't just end there: Eastern Europe is facing similar problems. The Polish language for example doesn't have a vous-form but instead you would talk to people as if they weren't in the room: "If you don't really know a person or you have to be polite you would add 'pan' or 'pani' to the sentence which basically means "gentleman" and "lady." So, instead of saying 'Could you tell me where that is?' you would say 'Could the lady tell me where that is?'" explains Anna, who is originally from Gdansk. From her account it sounds like the distinction is equally strict as in France or Germany. So, there we have yet another European language which requires you not only to learn grammar and vocabulary but also the fine lines that run between different kinds of people.

So, there we have yet another European language which requires you not only to learn grammar and vocabulary but also the fine lines that run between different kinds of people.

Heads spinning already? It gets even more complicated with languages that are spoken in more than one country, and countries that have more than one language. For those of you living in constant fear of embarrassing people by addressing them incorrectly I would recommend staying far away from Belgium. Sandra, who has lived both in the Netherlands and Belgium, explains:

"In the Netherlands people are more relaxed than in Belgium and you would use the tu-form in Dutch for a lot of people, also teachers and probably professors but for the prime minister for example you would always use the vous-form. French-speaking Belgians are less formal in addressing people than French in France, but they use the vous-form more than those speaking Dutch." So it sounds like the overall ranking would be France - French speaking Belgium - Dutch speaking Belgium – Netherlands. This obviously causes even more problems when meeting strangers, especially in more delicate situations: "I bumped with my car onto another car as I was driving out of a parking spot. In the other car there were four Moroccan guys who spoke French as their first language. All through the conversation they kept saying 'vous' to me, although they were my age. I did as well, but as they were a group, it came easier to me. But when I was talking to the driver alone, I had the strong inclination to use 'tu', as I would in my native language Dutch. But in French this is very impolite, if you don't know the other person, so I didn't. But it felt strange!"

Feeling strange seems to be the core emotion we can it cut down to regarding the stories so far. The awkward moment when addressing a stranger seems to be a very common European feeling. But how come this phenomenon seems to be an inerasable part of the our shared identity? Why is Europe still clinging to a distinction that was once established to draw a line between the nobility and the people? Are we still that medieval on the continent?

Photo: Holger Motzkau (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
"Oy, Granny, that's a nice dress you got there!" 

Calling your teacher "Sweetie"

You would think now that in that case those countries that still have the monarchy should make use of it even more. However, some examples show differently.

Not only the English language is totally free of any distinction. Some other Northern European countries also don't seem to mind losing the vous-form.

According to Juliane, who is from Denmark, the vous-form is so outdated nowadays in her country that she might actually forget about using it when she met Queen Margrethe II. From her stories Denmark sounds like a paradise for people who have problems with hierarchical structures: she would call her high school teacher "sweetie" and has a professor at university who actually introduced himself with his nickname and encouraged students to use it and not his real name.

Even if you might not be able to imagine boundaries this low for your country, you'd have to admit that it seems so much easier to actually be able to talk to someone without having to worry that you could offend him. If the distinction is a constant source of embarrassment why not abolish it completely? You might argue that this would be a very communist approach and the more conservative parts of society might not support this. However, this could be more easily overcome than you'd think considering today's situation in Denmark. "I've actually experienced some times that older people have been quite offended when younger people have addressed them with the vous-form." says Juliane. "They consider it a sign that the younger person thinks the older person is stuck up, old-fashioned and snobbish."

Do you think the vous-form is obsolete and should be left in the past, or would you still like to address a president in another way than your dad? Let us know in the comments!

Front image: E&M (PD)

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