Tuesday, October 8, 2013

To Tu or not to Tu

When and when not to tu in French is a complex cultural dilemma - especially if you're a casual person. In fact, if you're Australian it's probably hardest as our MO is to never act greater than anyone else in any given circumstance. How to be casual in general in French is highly difficult - there are manners of being that are simply not employed. An example that comes to mind is this:

Nice to meet you.

When meeting someone you'd say Enchanté(e) - enchanted - which is ridiculous, but sweet.

It's the goodbye Nice to meet you that's impossible. You know - you've been at the party and you've met some new people and you go around saying 'See you, nice to meet you, bye...' That offhand expression, as far as anyone whom I've ever asked can tell me, doesn't exist. The only thing you can say is:

Ravi(e) d'avoir fait votre connaissance - Ravished to make your acquaintance.

Or perhaps:

Ça m'a fait très plaisir de vous avoir rencontré - It's pleased me greatly to have met you. 

Pleeease, any French reader, if there's something I've missed tell me!

It comes up time after time, at social gatherings or meeting after meeting and I've gotten to the point were I simply say it in English as I can't stand the restrictive formality and directness of the other expressions. They feel so forward. 

The other one I find impossible is a simple 'Looking forward to it.' Ah! The only expressions I have ever found that match the sentiment translate as 'I'm waiting with impatience' or 'I'm waiting with interest.' Crazy. French is just a more sincere language. They either say it with entire conviction or they just say Au revoir. I have never even found any of the expressions I need in verlan or argot.

It's a complex thing - especially when you're used to relying on such nuances to express your being.

These issues are a constant source of squeamishness in my social and work life, but I think the greatest difficulty I still have is when and when not to tu someone. It's something we never even have to contemplate in English - we just use a slightly different deportment and grammar when talking to Grandma as opposed to our brother. In French there are two entire grammar systems based upon the vous and the tu form (in case you didn't study it at school). The former - for more formal situations and plurals, the latter, for informal communications. For example, you would never ever tutoyer an elderly person or a person you didn't know that was older than you - and you certainly would never use it in any sort of public interaction. The latter is used for your family (though I do know some very posh people who vous their parents) and your friends - people you converse regularly with. Oh, and children.

Of course, between the two is a whole, terrifying grey area.

For example, there's this hot chick who takes her one-year old to the same café Kiki and I go to in the evenings after club. We talk a lot, her little boy and Kiki play - we're about the same age. To tu or not to tu? We started chatting the other night after at least ten separate meetings and I couldn't remember if we tu'd or vous'd. So I just tu'd - I mean - come on. I might have been mistaken, but I swear she was offended. In the same café there is a waitress, Nathalie, who hugs and kisses Kiki and takes her behind the bar - they have an entire relationship. The rest of the staff and I all tu - we've known each other for ages. Nathalie, no matter how many tu's I do, vous me back! Ah! When we lived in the Récollets, they had cleaners come in every week and do our room. We struck up a friendship with one of the women named Myriam and one day (after having lived there for at least two years) I asked if we could tutoyer each other. She agreed, so I tu'd her. She spoke back to me in vous! It was mortifying. I tried out of curiosity to change it, but she never ever tu'd me once. I ended up going back to vous and we were all a lot more comfortable.

You see, there is real subservience here - none of the old Aussie 'no worries cobba, we're all equal'. If I serve you, I have no right to tu you. In fact, come to think of it, it was probably disrespectful of me to tutoyer Myriam. I should have respected the system - the distance.

But it's hard. You don't want to offend, say, people your age by not using the informal, but at the same time you don't want to be presumptuous and act like you're friends! I hate it I hate it I hate it! I'm constantly coming out of meetings thinking - oh shit - did I tu too early?

Ah, Grandmas. The best thing is talking to Grandmas because the boundaries are completely clear. Making beelines to Grandmas at parties now. Where's the égalité? 

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