Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Most Important Thing You Need to Know about Dating a French Man

The internet is full of information for anglophone ladies looking to snare a Frenchie. From knowing whether or not that first kiss means you really are a couple to the difference between "Je t'aime bien" and "Je t'aime" (you might be surprised about which one is the holy grail), the answers are out there (although some of them may not be strictly correct, as Gwan does a great job of explaining in this post.)

In my experience though, there's only one thing that you really need to know: if you get to the stage of meeting your future in-laws, you are supposed to call them vous. And while this might sound obvious, you also have to know that even if they start calling you tu, you're still supposed to vouvoie them back. (It's one of the very few relationships you can have where tutoiement is not reciprocal.)

When I first met Understanding Frenchman's parents, I was lucky enough to have got a heads-up on this. (I think it was on Ksam's blog, so thanks, Sam!) But when I double checked with UFM himself, he said, "No, no, you can call them tu." At the time, this seemed more normal to me. I reasoned that calling them vous was the equivalent of my parents insisting that they were Mr and Mrs, which they would never do.

The first time I met M. et Mme Frenchman was when they were visiting Paris and it was easy to use vous because most of the time I was addressing both of them. It was only when I first went to Brittany that I realised the situation wasn't entirely clear - did I tutoie them straight off or wait for them to say something? And so I tended to avoid using the word "you" at all (it's amazing what you can do with impersonal constructions such as on and tout se passe bien?) and we ended up in this vicious cycle where because I never used vous, they never officially told me not to and I was left sort of tutoie-ing them but not feeling very comfortable about it.

And then, on the next visit, UFM's sister's boyfriend of ten years, with whom she has a child, came over, and I noticed he was calling them vous. But when I mentioned it to UFM he just said, "Oh yeah, he's from Bordeaux. They're all very formal there." So it wasn't until the next visit again, when his sister-in-law was over with their kids, and he said to me, "Acutally, I think she calls my parents vous," that I started to seriously worry.

Understanding Frenchman didn't really get what I was so upset about. His family are genuinely very nice and very laid back and I think that even if I had made some huge faux pas, they wouldn't have been mortally offended by it. But I couldn't get it out of my mind, and eventually I went on about it so much that he brought it up with his parents one day when I wasn't there, and they said it really was all fine.

The thing is, though, that although I get on really well with both of them, and feel very relaxed when I'm there (I help myself to things from their fridge and we have breakfast in our pyjamas), I've come to understand that the whole tradition, while it still seems a bit stiff and stand-offish to me, actually has some sense to it. It's not exactly the equivalent of Mr and Mrs in English, and it could be a nice way of showing that, while I feel very at home in their house and we laugh and joke a lot together, I still have lots of respect for them as well.

Talking to a group of non-French friends who are all in relationships with French people the other week, it transpired that all of us have broken this rule in one way or another, with varying degrees of horror on the part of the Frenchies involved. (I definitely got off very lightly!)

So the lesson to be learned from this is, if you're going to date a French person, call their parents vous obviously, often, openly and until they tell you not to. Otherwise you could end up avoiding the word "you" around them for decades.

8 comments:

  1. This made me laugh because just a few weekends ago, my in-laws were in town, and I realized I'd accidentally been tu-ing them the whole time. It's just that they're so nice and laid-back that it seems natural to tu them. I always feel like "vous" was so formal with them, like I was trying to keep them at a distance.

    That night, I was talking to C and I was like "Oh crap! Now what do I do?" He obviously said it was fine and no big deal, but now like you, I'm going to be stuck being the only daughter/son-in-law tu-ing them while all the others use vous. Gah! It's all so complicated....

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    1. I guess if you didn't see them recoiling in shock the first time you said it, it probably wasn't too traumatic an experience for them. But as you say, being different from all the other children-in-law could be delicate ... unless they follow your example and start doing it too!

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  2. Wow - so complex! The whole idea of all of this terrifies me, so I can't imagine how it must have terrified you!

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    1. I know - after three years in France, I thought I pretty much had tu and vous figured out, but this takes it to a whole new level!

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  3. This is very true! I lost my ability to master the "vous" a bit because Québécois are very informal and often use "tu", even with strangers. But mastering the "vous" opens so many doors in France...

    The funny thing is, sometime you hear "belle-maman, vous m'emmerdez!", which is offensive of course (and blunt, but hey, mother-in-law can get on your nerves...!) but acceptable if you use vous.

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    1. Hee hee, I can't imagine ever saying that to Mme Frenchman!

      I noticed in Italy too, that although they have the equivalent of tu and vous (tu and Lei) the formal one is kept for very formal situations (even shop assistants use tu to customers, for example) and it was so much easier!

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  4. Haha, I tutoie my in-laws, but mostly because I met them in the second month of my junior year abroad when my French was still really shaky. My French teachers in the US said you use vous for people you don't know and tu for people you do know, so I figured it was fine to tutoie my boyfriend's parents because I knew them. Plus it was easier to conjugate verbs! About 6 months in I realized my mistake through FLE classes and I had my whole tu/vous crises with my internship boss because he used tu with me but as my boss I knew I was supposed to use vous. Back to my in-laws, they think it's cute I use tu with them, especially since the conjugation story got leaked.

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  5. Hey, thanks for the shout-out! I don't think I could hack vousvoying my inlaws, that would be too bizarre. She's left now, and I'm just about to, but it really bothered me that we had to vousvoie our boss and she tutoied us, it just feels so condescending!

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