You in French
The Formal and Informal You in French
The French culture has inherited a way of addressing people formally and casually and this affects both language and choice of words. There are distinctions about who to call “vous” and who to call “tu” for example. In today’s fast paced lifestyles, there is a tendency to be less formal, yet compared to the English language, French customs still make an imprint on social interactions.
The sense of respect prevails today in many cultures around the globe, albeit adapted to modern day norms. In some French families today, parents are still addressed by their children in the formal way! To some this appears to create distance, while to others it maintains a sense of respect.
In French today there is still a clear language code where both formal and informal greetings are relevant. This formal code is useful when you are asking for anything in the commercial arena in France, from shops, health care, touring, making bookings, and as you meet new people.
As you will find out in your conversations with French people, so much of the dialogue depends on how other people interact with you! It’s just as important to understand what’s being said to you as it is to know what to say in a new language. Introducing yourself and introducing other people to each other is a good place to start establishing your ease with dialogues.
The exceptions to using the formal “vous” would be when talking to your family, your friends or when addressing very young children.
Casual French conversation
You will notice that in a typical dialogue in French, a person is always addressed by their appropriate title, even if you don’t know their actual name, as in “Sir,” “Monsieur,” “Madam,” ”Madame,” and more traditionally, addressing adolescents as “jeune homme,” ”young man,” or “jeune fille,” ”young lady.”
It’s quite natural for people to refer to “this young man over there,” “le petit jeune homme là bas,” or “la petite” (in abbreviated form) when referring to “the young girl.” There are some subtle distinctions, for example, “Monsieur” across the board, refers to “Sir,” or to a “gentleman,” whereas “l’homme,” means “the man.” It’s probably safer to address any adult woman as “madame” as opposed to “mademoiselle” “miss” regardless of their actual status.
In contrast, when addressing family or very young children, it’s not necessary to be so formal. However, it’s probably good to follow the general guideline that, when in doubt, be formal!
Remember that when you already know someone relatively well, there is no need to introduce yourself formally anyway. You may need to introduce a friend to another friend, in which case it is useful to follow the expected pattern.
The following examples show casual greetings using varying degrees of familiarity, from casual through to very laid back.
Casual French conversation
Bonjour Marie, comment vas-tu ? Tu connais Jeanne ?
Good morning Marie, how are you? Have you met Jeanne?
Bonjour, Marie. Ça fait longtemps qu'on ne s'est pas vu !
Good morning Mary, it's been a while since we've seen each other!
Applying for a job is always strictly formal and interacting with people socially on vacation at a hotel for example, or sight seeing, would always be expected to be more rather than less, formal. It’s a good idea to be comfortable using both socially.
Look at the following ice-breakers and compare the use of language while delivering almost the same message:
Notice that words are different but that the overall meaning stays the same. So... that should cover your bases and keep you out of trouble for a while, however informal you'd like to be!
I hope you find these free French grammar lessons helpful.
Marie-Claire Rivière and the Rocket French Team