A formal feeling


For English speakers, one of the main hazards in learning a language like French or German is the existence of informal and formal versions for the second person (you). This used to be part of English as well — “thou” was informal, though now it sounds extra formal and archaic to our ears. However, this was dropped along the course of linguistic evolution, perhaps as a result of waves of immigrants and invaders that tended to rub off some of the corners of the language.

When I started learning French many years ago, I had to get used to the “tu” and “vous” forms, and I thought that was bad enough. However, at least “vous” and its attendant verb conjugations remain the same for both formal and plural usages, and there is no different form for objects vs subjects. With German, an informal plural form is added, “ihr,” which to add insult to injury is the same as one version of the word for “her” and similar to a bunch of other pronouns. Also, this being German, there are also different forms for direct and indirect objects.

I have the hardest time keeping all this straight and so I tend to avoid talking to or about groups of people with whom I am in an informal relationship.

It’s those relationships that are the main issue, of course, not the just the grammatical rules. When and how does one move from using the formal (vous / Sie) to informal (tu / du/ihr)? It’s a matter of great cultural delicacy, and though things have loosened up lately, one can cause great offense and/or misunderstanding by using the wrong form. I find it all terribly awkward, not being accustomed to having to ask or to somehow sense whether a relationship with another adult is ready for “du.” As a rule of thumb in German-speaking Switzerland, if you’re on a first name basis you can say “du” – but unless the person introduces themselves by their first name, it’s a little hard to break that ice.

One can also make a social faux pas by being too formal, or by switching back to a formal form after being on a “tu/du” basis. Recently I had an altercation (in French) with a neighbor over the fact that I’d mistakenly taken her laundry out of the machine when it wasn’t done. We’ve never had a real conversation, but I imagine if we spoke we’d use first names and “tu”. However, in trying to explain my mistake, I used “vous” as a sign of respect — and she only seemed to become more enraged. Maybe I was actually being rude, when I was trying to be polite? I was left at a loss as to the remedy.

I ended up writing her an apology note that cleverly avoided the use of the second person altogether, and she seemed pleased. Hopefully the next time we meet, we can “tutoyer” with a good conscience.

If you speak a language with informal pronouns, do you have any tips? How can a clumsy foreigner navigate this social minefield?

How formal is this relationship? Probably they are saying “du,” but it’s hard to be sure. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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25 thoughts on “A formal feeling

    1. That’s what I learned too, but it seems things are loosening up, at least in the circles I move in. There is much more openness to using the informal than in the past, and thus more chance of causing offense by being too formal, rather than the opposite. Time do change!

  1. In German(y) it depends on age group and social context. Like in English (with „thou“ and „you“), the whole thing has its roots in an age when address was even vastly more formal than today, and „Du“ was a mark either of extreme informality or disrespect. „Sie“ was the address of respect in „ordinary“ relationships and most upwards-vertical scenarios (even children would use it with their parents, except maybe in the manual labor classes, where „Du“ was more common among adults, too). Vis-à-vis members of the nobility, the „upward“ address would be „Ihr“ (2d person plural), whereas noblemen would use „Sie“ among each other and when speaking to commoners. „Ihr“ went by the wayside as a form of address somewhere in the 19th century (I think), and children started using „Du“ with their parents a considerable time later, but the basic understanding remained — „Du“ for informality, „Sie“ for respect.

    As you noted, unless you‘re on a first name basis (essentially, just friends or family), the standard today is still „Sie“. For an older person to address a younger person as „Du“ may be seen as a sign of disrespect, unless you‘re speaking to a child (which is what you may be seen to be implying when you‘re using „Du“ under those circumstances) — *unless* the older person has first expressly taken the relationship to a mutually informal level by „offering Du“ („das Du anbieten“). Ditto in work relationships; certainly in a vertical relationship, but in most offices people working on the same level tend to use „Sie“ by default, too, and only switch to „Du“ after having expressly agreed to do so (*and* only between those individuals). If you‘re working in an office where „Du“ is the standard among all, chances are you will expressly be told so at the outset. (This is also dependent on the type of industry you‘re looking at, though; lawyers, bankers and economists are vastly more formal among each other than, say, artists and IT techs, who‘ll use „Sie“ with clients but, I think, are more prone to use „Du“ among themselves, and I think on factory floors, „Du“ is the standard among coworkers — you‘re seen as the German equivalent of a toff if you insist on „Sie“ there.)

    Younger persons (up to, say, somewhere in their thirties), use „Du“ among each other as the standard in school / university and informal settings; as soon as they enter the workplace, the above rules apply, though younger coworkers tend to agree to use „Du“ among each other faster and more easily than others.

    Social media have further relaxed standards a bit; the fact that people are, or tend to be, on a first name basis there, means that „Du“ goes more naturally with that (e.g., it‘s what I‘d be using with you, too, although we‘ve never met in person). Some social media companies — particularly those based in English speaking countries — use „Du“ in their computer-generated messages; whether or not their German-speaking staff will actually do so in personal communication with members of their platform depends on company culture, though (and you can always tell them you consider it inappropriate, particularly if you‘re of an age where you‘d more naturally expect „Sie“ from strangers). Apple used to have its German staff use „Du“ with every customer in their stores regardless of age, but that doesn‘t seem to have gone down well — when I recently went to have my iPhone‘s battery changed, their staff used „Sie“.

    So, bottom line, there‘s no „one size fits all“ rule for German, but unless you‘re communicating online (or speaking to a child), „Sie“ is almost always the safe choice; „Du“ — once you‘re into, say, your 30s — requires either a setting of great informality or mutual consent.

    1. That is funny about the failed Apple Store attempt to override the will to formality! Interesting pointers too, thank you. My work setting is on the casual side, with basically only two level of hierarchy, and a lot of us are foreigners so I think that loosens things up too. If I worked in a Swiss-dominated office I’m sure I’d be much more in the “Sie” mode.

      1. Yes, I think the German-speaking Swiss are even more formal than us!

        Something that occurred to me re: your neighbor: In Germany it‘s considered an insult to revert to „Sie“ once a „Du“ relationship has been established; basically it means „I don‘t want you in my life any longer“ (unless of course it‘s clear from the context that you‘re either joking or you‘ve used „Sie“ in error, e.g. because this is someone you‘ve known as a „Sie“ acquaintance for some time and you‘ve only just switched to „Du“, and it takes a bit of time to adjust). I have no idea whether that would apply to French — and French-speaking Swiss — as well, but if it does, could this be an explanation of your neighbor‘s attitude / seeming to take offense?

        What is the everyday language of communication at your office — English or French?

        1. I think it is true for French speakers as well that reverting to “vous” when you’re on “tu” terms is an insult. With my neighbor, I was not quite sure what terms we were on, which meant either choice could be bad.

          At work the official language is German, really Swiss German dialect, but that’s a whole other can of worms I will have to get into later. It’s not an office but a caregiving setting, which also would tend to make things more informal. I think the accepted thing is to start out with work colleagues as “Sie” but fairly soon in the working relationship you can mutually agree to switch to “du.”

          For me the moment of asking this question feels terribly awkward, because what if the person doesn’t really want to be called “du” but feels socially pressured? Does anyone ever refuse when asked? Can one cause offense merely by the request? For me, the social hazards of having formal and informal pronouns outweigh any possible benefits, but that may be because I lack the instincts to deal with them.

          1. I would expect that as a non-native speaker you’d meet with quite a lot of understanding here, particularly if you did make your uncertainties explicit and asked. What people don’t like — particularly from English speakers (which to many Germans means “Americans” by default, unless they know different for certain) — is if you simply take it for granted that “first name basis” and “Du” are acceptable. That goes against the grain not only because it’s considered culturally insenstive, but also because it feeds straight into two widespread (and related) anti-American stereotypes:

            (1) Americans always think their way of doing things is best (or even the only way), even though quite often the reverse is true; and
            (2) Americans are shallow: they’re on a first-name basis with everybody, however casual the relationship, and they call everybody “their friend”. They don’t even know how to value “true” friendship. (Don’t ask how many times I’ve tried to explain to fellow Germans that the term “friend” has quite a different connotation in the U.S. than it does here, and yet again in other English speaking countries.)

            That being said, it did feel strange to me to use first names even with total or comparative strangers when I visited the U.S. for the first time, particularly with people who were older than me (I was still in school then) … I was probably at least as insecure about that as you are about the reverse situation! 🙂

            1. There are some valid criticisms there. American culture does tend to be superficial and shallow, and making everything casual and friendly on the surface doesn’t necessarily lead to true friendship. But like all human beings, Americans need and long for deeper relationships, and I hope that as members of other groups get to know us they will realize that. Language, unfortunately, like all differences between groups of people, can become a serious obstacle to understanding, but we’ve got to start getting beyond that somehow.

              I hadn’t actually thought about the linguistic marker of the informal voice helping to protect such an inner space — it has always appeared to me more as a scary and repellent social hazard. I will think differently about it now. Thank you!

              1. Oh, my … apologies if I hit a soft spot there. I lived in the U.S. — East Coast and California — for several extremely happy years (and had visited for extended periods, in one case several months, even before that), so I did come to understand and appreciate the American attitude towards „casual“ vs. „personal / intimate“ (had, in fact, even before I actually moved); I‘m as chagrined as anybody by the misunderstandings caused by different attitudes. (Quod erat demonstrandum …!)

                I think — and apologies, again, if I’m preaching to the converted here — that in part stereotypes like the ones I mentioned in my last response are caused by sheer geography, as well as by the way we come to meet (if we do at all) as a result. Of course Europeans also continue to harbour plenty of stereotypes about each other, many of them centuries old, but in these days of easy travel and what with the EU having made moving abroad for study and work purposes so much easier at least for citizens of its member States, too, we‘re finally mixing and mingling and coming to understand each other better than we ever did. Whereas with the Americas, there‘s still an ocean to cross, and for all the exchange, „study abroad“, work internship (etc.) programs, declining costs of travel, etc., most Europeans still only experience the U.S. and Canada, if at all, during several weeks‘ worth of vacation — and what they experience there is automatically seen as representative of the entire country. Or even continent. (Only those who‘ve had a more immersive experience will appreciate, too, that there are vast cultural differences between the different parts of the U.S. — and between the U.S. and Canada.) Of course the percentage of those who‘ve had that sort of experience is growing, and you‘ll hardly find any non-native English speaker (from Europe, anyway) in the Anglophone blogosphere who hasn‘t been blessed by such an experience in one form or another, but outside the blogosphere and international work contexts there are still many people whose sources of information are largely / predominantly secondhand … or whose only (knowing) experience with Americans derives from watching tour groups — not the most immersive scenario on either side!

                That said, I *am* glad for the blogosphere precisely because it steps in where sheer geography can‘t.

                And, on a sort of related note, it does occur to me that we‘re having this conversation on the 5th anniversary of Brexit …

                1. No offense taken! All nations have their strengths and weaknesses, as do all individuals. We need to know ourselves and each other and get to appreciate the good things and be patient with the ones that need work. It’s good to remember, as you point out, that things are always way more complex than can be conveyed by a single impression or short visit. The internet has also opened up the world in many ways, good and bad. But I will always believe that the book blogosphere is one of the greatest things about it. 🙂

  2. It’s there in Spanish, too, but you use the same form as for him/her or they which really confuses me as without the pronoun, which doesn’t always seem to be there, I can’t tell whether they’re talking about an informal him/her/they or an informal you!

  3. Interesting! I know nothing about the German language, so it was all curious for me. I never had problems with learning the the formal and informal differentiations in Spanish and French because my native Russian has the same differences and I basically “learned” them from childhood. I can only repeat what other people said too – the sound advice is to use the informal language (tu (Spanish)/toi (French), etc.) only for family and friends and I would use the formal language with people my age who are strangers until we are deep into conversation with them and I can ask: “shall we switch to “informal you/tu”? or I may ask “Can I call you…(informal name)?” I also realise your issue with your neighbour. The curious thing is that switching to the formal You in certain contexts may not be taken as politeness at all, but the contrary. Of course I don’t refer to your situation, but if there was already a informal conversation between two people in the past, suddenly using “vous” with someone may even be taken as a cold slap in the face, putting a LOT of space and coldness between the speaker and the listener. In this context it may mean – “you’re not one of US anymore”.

    1. Yes, it was my sense that I was causing offense by saying “vous.” But I also feared appearing too familiar by saying “tu.” It was a no-win situation! However, I think it’s all fine now.

  4. Goodness, that all sounds enormously tricky! A very difficult situation. I hope that things will go better with your neighbour from now on.

    There’s an informal form of ‘you’ in Flemish/Dutch as well: jij is the informal, u the formal. But in everyday life, people barely seem to use ‘u’ – I see it in official communications and hear it at reception desks, but not much otherwise. (Wherever possible, I just copy whatever I hear the other person using.) It seems to me that ‘jij’ tends to be used if you consider yourself to be equals and I have the impression it’s adopted much more quickly in a conversation than the French ‘tu’. It sounds as if it’s a more complex situation in Switzerland too.

    I expect I have messed up the jij/u question many times all the same, but I have the advantage of Belgians being very accepting of my terrible attempts at their language and forgiving of my gross errors. Even though I live here, many of them are quite unnecessarily pleased that I’ve taken the trouble to learn it.

    1. I think I smoothed things over with the neighbor, thanks! It didn’t help that when under pressure I tend to forget half of what French I do know, like the words for “laundry” or “unintentional.” Then I probably appear terse and uncommunicative, whereas really I’m just befuddled. There are so many ways to misunderstand each other, aren’t there?

      I am given quite a lot of forgiveness and leeway in general, thankfully. It could be different if I were living in France. Here, although the French speakers are very proud and protective of their language, there is also a tremendous mix of other peoples and languages, so I don’t stick out so very much.

      1. Well done, I’m glad things are better. Perhaps your neighbour also had time to reflect on the fact that you’re not a native speaker and cut you some slack?

        There are indeed many ways to misunderstand each other! I tend to use quite basic vocabulary and often feel frustrated that I can’t add much nuance to what I’m saying (because yes, like you, I am often trying to remember what the word for ‘laundry’ is, or equivalent!). And sometimes I just get tired and say ‘yes’ or whatever and can’t muster the energy to go into explanations. All of which leads to terseness.

        However, that might not be quite as bad in Belgium as in Switzerland. In British culture, there’s a lot of hedging of what you say and being direct can be experienced as quite rude or aggressive; the Flemish are not as direct as the Dutch but still there have been lots of times I’ve received emails from Belgians and felt a bit defensive, but then mulling it over I think I’m overreacting and being British about it. So perhaps they don’t mind my terseness as much as a British – perhaps a Swiss – person might?

        All so complex! It makes life interesting though…

        1. Yes, if I can take it all as an interesting learning experience my mistakes don’t seem so bad. And other people can have a chance to learn too, when they cut me some slack. 🙂

    2. And there is the fact that in very colloquial language “Gij” of “ge” is used, between “u” and “jij” in Flanders

  5. That’s such a tough thing for English speakers to become comfortable with. I had no trouble learning the grammar for the formal “you” in Spanish (“usted”), but knowing when to apply it, and when not to, without giving offense — that was definitely a challenge.

    Interestingly, I have much less difficulty with “thou” (or “thee”) in English than most English speakers. I grew up Quaker, and spent five years of my childhood living in a Quaker community. (My mom worked at a Friends’ boarding school, and we lived on campus.) While most Quakers, even at the time, no longer used “thee” and “thy,” a few still did, including the Headmaster and his wife. To this day, if someone uses “thee” when addressing me, I feel comforted, safe, and accepted; because of those childhood experiences, it conveys a care and appreciation of the individual that goes beyond the everyday “you.”

    1. Fascinating, thank you so much for sharing that experience. As with ThemisAthena’s comment above, this helps me to understand the purpose for the informal form of address.

  6. IF still relevant, also in Dutch there is a difference between “U” (formal) and “jij” (informal), and complicating the matter there is a difference between The Netherlands and Flanders, where both Dutch is spoken. The Dutch are, generally spoken, more ot use “jij” and less formal “U”, while in the spoken word, in Flanders “jij” sounds too “Hollands” to be much used. (this can be changing). In the spoken language Flemish users use for informality often “gij”, which to Netherlands Dutch speakers is very odd and too formal and outdated. (it seems to them if you English would use “Thou”). In Written Dutch, the Flemish don’t use “gij” except in older prayers etc, and even then. The rigidity jij/u is however less than in Germany or so. It is a very interesting topic.

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