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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tu vs. Vous

Those of us around the world who speak English are pretty lucky. English most certainly has rules on how to speak it, but seemingly less and less people follow them than before. English is a language that one can speak badly and usually not have to fear condescending remarks or corrections. I'm sure I've made several grammatical mistakes and faults while writing this blog that would have taken points off of papers that I wrote in college. As long as us anglophones understand what somebody needs, we're usually just impressed that a non-Anglophone can speak our language at all, because most of us from English speaking countries don't speak anything other than English.

Many of the English speaking countries, like the United States, Canada, and Australia for example, are huge. While the Europeans can have several different languages within an 100 mile radius, we could drive 25-30 hours in the above-mentioned countries and never encounter a foreign language. Thus, we just really don't have as much of a need for a second language.

Back to original point, in English, rules aren't that big of a deal. Whether someone is the Queen of England or a toddler, when speaking to them, we refer to them as "you". In French, it is not as easy. For me, this is one of the issues I still struggle with the most. This is the battle of tu versus vous.

First off, both of these words translate as "you", it is just that each are used in separate occasions. One would use tu if they are talking to a close friend, a child, and more frequently, a stranger their own age. Even in the latter circumstance, tu shouldn't be used when in a business setting unless it is someone that you know very well.

Conversely, vous is more formal. If you are meeting someone for the first time (unless they are a child), you should use vous in the conversation when addressing them. This should also be used until it is deemed appropriate to start using tu. There is even a verb to use when asking if you can address someone in the tu form, which is tutoyer, though personally I don't think I've ever heard anyone ask this to me before.

This doesn't really seem that complicated, and for the French, it really isn't difficult to do. Remembering these rules when writing French isn't really that tough either, even for someone learning the language. However, for those of us who are used to having only one word for "you", this can be incessantly complicated when speaking.

From personal experience, several times I have addressed a septuagenarian as if he or she were eight years old, while I have spoken a child as if they were my friend's grandparents. It can be quite difficult to remember these rules when speaking on the fly. Usually the first thing to come out of my mouth, no matter whom I am addressing, will be tu. If it is the wrong time to use it, I'll try and make up for it by saying vous the rest of the time I am speaking to this person worthy of the vous form.

When I was working on my visa last year, I had to travel to a town called Melun, about an hour southeast of Paris in order to get my paperwork started. A translator came with me just to help make the process smoother. We spent about an hour in line chatting and at first, we addressed each other in the vous form, but after we started to discuss more personal stories, such as where we grew up and how we came to be where we are, I felt confident that we could start using the tu form. When I spoke to her again afterwards by email, I used tu throughout the message. When she responded, she only addressed me in the vous form.

This instance left me feeling pretty confused. I felt that we had crossed the vous frontier into tu territory, but it turned out I had been sent right back to vous again. Since then, we have only used vous when speaking to one another. What I've learned here is that we Americans are a very social bunch, we want to be personal and on familiar terms with everyone. In France, that doesn't happen as often. Though I know that people in French companies go out for drinks and socialize amicably, I feel that the French are more reluctant to be on familiar terms with a client or coworker. Simply put, keep the personal life and business life separate.

The point of this entry was not to show how to differentiate the tu and vous forms, rather it was to show how complicated it can be. Fortunately, if you happen to address someone in the wrong form, they probably will not mind. Maybe you will help an aged person feel young again, or a child feel like an adult. In these cases, confusing tu and vous might not be a bad thing after all.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Earlier this week, Julie and I went out to lunch at a café that is located close to my work in the 15ème. The lunch was great, especially considering the price, and the Coriscan wine was surprisingly good as well. However, as we were approaching the end of our meal, we could hear on the other side of the café "OH MY GOD! I KNOW! THAT IS SO TRUE!" One would have to strain themselves to be able to hear the conversation of the French coworkers sitting adjacent to us, but make no effort at all to know that some Americans on the other side of the café had just made their presence known.

We Americans are a fairly loud group. While the French tend to be more private when sharing their personal lives in a public place, the whole café would be able to learn that the Americans love France and everyone within a five table radius can collectively share their relief when they proclaim the results of their latest colonoscopy to the room. This isn't to say that I am not loud myself, as I tend to over-project when I cross over into inebriation. It's just that our general lack of volume control can stand out in places like a restaurant or the métro, especially when considering France is a country that takes their privacy seriously.

Back to the scene at the café. Julie said that she could understand most of the conversation, but occasionally she didn't pick up on something and said that in those cases the people talking more closely resembled birds jabbering away. She then asked me, "What do you hear when you hear French people talking and don't catch everything they said?"

To me, it sounds like this, "Euh...bah puis, voilà....euh....blah blah quoi...tu vois?"

On their own, most of these words actually have a meaning. However, when appropriately placed in a sentence by a French speaker, one can in turn say very little at all. These are essentially great words for one's arsenal when they have nothing to say. I'll break this down some more.

Euh is probably the most common of all stalling words in the French language, if one can indeed call it a word at all. It is the French equivalent of "uhh" and it is used for exactly the same purpose. It lets the listener know that you are thinking of something to say, yet simultaneously you don't want anyone else to step in and stop you from finishing your point. The pronunciation is fairly similar as well. The only difference is that euh comes from further back and deeper in ones mouth and throat than "uhh".

Perhaps my favorite of these superfluous phrases would be et puis, voilà. In English, this translates to "And then, there you have it". As a tour guide, I often find myself caught way off on a tangent and with little idea how to close off the subject with a bang. Most often I come up with something like this: "And...well...yeah." The sudden transition from being so passionate in one's story to ending so anti-climatically has the potential to lead to a disappointed listener. In English, we don't really have one phrase that can get us out of a jam and close off the conversation before the listener figures out that we have no idea what we are talking about. Fortunately for the French, they have et puis, voilà which can usually bail them out before leading whatever point they were making into oblivion.

Most people who have studied even a little bit of French know that quoi translates to "what" in English. However, those who have not spent much time in France are probably not aware of how often and uselessly this word is mixed into conversation. When I visited a friend from the south of France a couple of years ago, I remember how he seemed to use quoi at the end of almost every sentence. For example, "Bah oui, c'est comme ça quoi". This translates to "Well yeah, it's like that". The quoi doesn't add emphasis or anything at all, it's just there. When I came back to Paris after this trip, I seemed to notice it even more. I remember one girl I met who seemed to use it for one of every five words in her sentences. If you happen to find yourself learning French and in a conversation with someone who uses quoi gratuitously, do not mistake it for some sort of nervous tick and do your best to pick out the meaning of the conversation between quois.

Tu vois happens to be the phrase that bothers me the most. It translates to "you see", but it is akin to the excessive use of "you know" in English. What is interesting to observe is that the guilty parties are essentially the same, regardless of country. The culprits are almost always girls between 13 and 30, and those that use these phrases finish pretty much every sentence with this nonsense. Perhaps this shows that adolescent girls and those who have crossed into early adulthood are constantly looking for confirmation that other people have the same beliefs and values as themselves and feel the need to suggest that the other person should agree with them as well. But hey, I'm not a psychologist, I'm just writing a blog about all things pertaining to France.

In sum, one doesn't need to say anything close to meaningful to pull off sounding as if they have a good understanding of French. Tu vois?

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Salutations in Boutiques and Restaurants

In a previous article, I held a one man debate on whether or not Parisians could be considered rude. Though there are a few who will go out of their way to make you upset or show you that they feel they have been wronged, for the most part, the people in Paris, and especially in the provinces, are unwaveringly friendly.

For example, whenever one enters a restaurant, store, or boutique, someone will come up and say hello to you. They don't do it in the "I'll help you find what you need because I am working for commission" phony sort of way. The employee will say hello to you, and then get out of your way until you've made your decision as to what you want. No pressure from the vendors makes shopping a little less stressful all around: if you want some help, you know where to find them, but if you don't, then they won't.

Now this isn't a one sided deal here. If you are going to be looking around in their store, you had better say hello and goodbye when entering and exiting. Stores here are considered like an extension of their home. If you are walking into their store and flipping through their merchandise, you had better greet them first. Once the exchange of salutations is completed, it's almost as if the vendor is saying, "Ok, now you have permission to sift through my belongings."

This really is a simple procedure, and thus, I propose to briefly explain how this should be done.

First, when walking into the store, be prepared to say bonjour or bonsoir, depending on the time of day. I tend to say bonjour until about 5pm, after which I will say bonsoir. There are times, especially during the summer when the sun stays out until close to 11pm that I will say bonjour later into the evening.

Second, when saying the chosen word, it is best to actually address it to someone, though it doesn't necessarily matter which employee receives your greeting. Occasionally, when scanning the store for a target, one might not be easily found. If you find yourself in this scenario, just say your greeting out loud, with the hopes that someone will hear you. In this situation, another shopper might step in and actually greet you, just so that you feel like your greeting was not wasted.

When leaving the store, regardless of whether or not one has bought something, one should always thank the merchant and say goodbye. Usually just a merci, au revoir should suffice, but depending on the time of day, one could add on a bonne journée or bonne soirée, or even tack on a bon weekend if it happens to be Friday or Saturday. Once again, your response may not be heard by a vendor and the responsibility may fall upon a customer. I once saw in a restaurant a man sitting by the door taking lunch, and whenever someone walked out and said goodbye, he would always step in and return the greeting if a staff member was not around.

It's not as if this takes a lot of extra work, and after a while, it just becomes a reflex. In my opinion, this is just another piece of evidence that the Parisians are not as rude as many perceive.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at