English is one of the few languages without a formal-informal distinction in its second-person pronoun. Confused? Think back to your high school French classes: you were probably taught to use the formal “vous” to address strangers, and the familiar “tu” for your friends. In fact, English once had a similar system, with “thou” as the informal pronoun and “you” as the formal one; however, “you” eventually won out across the board. While this makes life much easier for native speakers, it regularly confounds foreign TV and film translators, who have to decide for themselves which pronoun the characters should use. It took Mulder and Scully nine seasons of the German-language X-Files to make the switch from formal to informal – talk about will-they-or-won’t-they!
The English system definitely has its advantages. But don’t expect to see countries such as Japan make the switch any time soon – ditching its various levels of honorifics would mean upending its entire culture. Instead, let us take you on a tour of politeness around the world, and hopefully head off some international faux pas before you can put your (singular, informal) foot in it.
English: separated by a common language
Sure, life might be easier when you don’t have to choose between the formal and informal pronouns just to ask “How are you?”. But English politeness still has its pitfalls. The American use of “sir/ma’am” for a stranger sounds overly formal to British ears, while some swear words considered acceptable in a casual context in Australia are completely verboten in the US. And what’s considered polite can vary just as much within a single country: just contrast New York brusqueness (it’s rude to waste people’s time with unnecessary chit-chat) with Midwest expansiveness (it’s rude not to ask after people’s health). Still, erring on the side of formality is always a safe bet, and if your accent makes it clear that you’re an outsider, no-one will take offence if you’re a little off the mark.
Friendly, formal… France
Do you call your parents-in-law by their first names? Confusingly, first names are often used in combination with the formal pronoun “vous” in France – even within the family. In general, formality is a question of age. While the elderly CEO you’re trying to charm may refer to you as “tu”, stick with “vous” in your reply if you want to win the contract. And things are even simpler if you’re writing advertising copy: just stick with “vous”, and you’re onto a winner every time.
Spanish: stay informal, darling
We don’t want to endorse national stereotypes, but the Spanish are definitely more relaxed about these things than their Gallic counterparts. While the formal “Usted” still has its place, you can safely use the informal “tú” everywhere from restaurants to the office or the bank. In fact, even “tú” isn’t familiar enough for some: don’t be surprised if you’re addressed as “cariño” (“dear” or “darling”), even by people you don’t know well. But watch out: as with many things, it’s a different story in Latin America. The region is a patchwork of different usages, so check if the standard is actually “vos”, otherwise known as the second person plural. If you struck up a chat with Messi, for example, “tù” would be out of place.
Swedish: royalty has its privileges
Since the end of the swinging sixties, Sweden has been similarly relaxed, but before then, things could get pretty complicated. The informal “du” was only used for children, spouses and extremely close friends, while the second-person plural pronoun “Ni” was considered rude as a form of address for an individual. This led to a complex system of politeness that largely avoided pronouns in favor of titles. For example, an employee would ask, “How is Manager Norling today?” even when addressing her directly.
Amazingly, the switch to the informal “du” in all circumstances is largely credited to one man. In 1967, Bror Rexed, the new head of the National Board of Health and Welfare, introduced himself to his employees with “Kalla mig Bror!” (“Call me Bror!”) and announced in his welcome speech that he would address everyone as “du”. This egalitarian usage rapidly spread across Swedish society… up to a point. To this day, the royal family must still be addressed using their full titles.
Italian: follow the inquisitors
Julius Caesar might have been the most powerful man in Rome, but he was still addressed using the informal pronoun – as was everyone else in the old republic. But for the emperors that followed him, the formal second-person plural “Voi” was the only acceptable option. Things didn’t change again until the 15th century, when the Spanish Inquisition introduced the use of “Lei”, the formal second-person singular. Today, “Voi” is increasingly uncommon, and is primarily confined to southern dialects such as Neapolitan. In formal situations, “Lei” can be combined with a title (“signore/signora”) and surname. On websites and in ad copy, however, the informal “tu” is the standard.
Russian: who’s your daddy?
In Russia, it’s common to address people by their first name – but don’t get too comfortable! At the beginning of an acquaintance, the first name is used in combination with the formal pronoun “Вы” (pronounced “vy”), not the informal “Ты” (pronounced “ty”). The switch to informality happens spontaneously as the relationship gets closer. Russia also has another idiosyncrasy: addressing others using their first name and patronymic. So if you want to impress at your next east European business meeting, all you need to do is conduct a little research into your counterpart’s family tree. Just be sure not to smile too much while greeting them, or you’ll squander the goodwill you’ve just earned: in parts of Eastern Europe, a smile isn’t merely a polite gesture but a sign of genuine happiness, and is out of place at a business meeting.
Japanese: keigo, uchi-soto and more
In Japan, by contrast, a smile is compulsory regardless of your real feelings – and is much easier to master than the rules for honorific speech, or “keigo”. This complex system encompasses a variety of overlapping levels affecting everything from pronouns to verb forms, which can sometimes seem designed to trip up unsuspecting foreigners. Still, the most important rule is simple: show respect to others, and be humble about yourself. This humility is connected to the concept of “uchi-soto”, or in-groups and out-groups. Your in-group includes, for example, your family and the team you lead at work, or even the whole firm if you’re talking to a contact at another company. When talking to someone from an out-group, you refer to your in-group using humble language. Within the in-group, however, different rules and hierarchies come into play: you address your grandfather more formally than your little sister, for example.
Still have questions?
Chinese: age before beauty
China’s rules of address are similarly complicated – but at least social status doesn’t play a role in the pronouns you use. Nor does your relationship to the person you’re addressing: even family members may be referred to using formal language, depending on the occasion. Age, however, is always accorded respect: older people should be addressed using the polite form “nín” (您), rather than the informal “nĭ” (你).
Sounds complicated? Here’s a shortcut: to avoid offence when advertising in Chinese, just refrain from addressing individuals directly. Instead, use collective phrases such as “People will find everything they need at our store”. (The same goes for Japan, incidentally.)
Have you got all that? If not, we’ll be happy to help you polish your international etiquette. Regardless of the language. And without standing on ceremony.
Cover image via Supertext