Le Vous - A Tale of Embarrassment

I've been seeing my physical therapist, my kinésithérapeute, for about two months now. 10 half-hour sessions of mini-massages and chatting about anything and everything: my back injury, good restaurants in the area, my job, how she became a kiné etc etc etc.  Bien sur, we vouvoyer each other - in other words, we use the formal "you": Le "vous".

The vous form of "you" shows respect, distance and formality. You use it with elders, people who you don't know, clients, bosses, and people who are further up the hierarchy in general.  Sometimes (often actually) even people of the same family use the vous, or for example, a doctor and a patient.  It's the done thing - ça se fait comme ça.

I've always had a respect problem - just ask my mom and dad. I was the kid, who at 12 years old, talked about how adults need to earn respect and how just because they were older didn't mean I had to respect them.  No one is due respect, it always has to be earned. I guess I still agree with 12 year-old me, and I still have trouble with the French institutions of respect.  I find them nul, studpide, archaïque and above all, hypocrite.

You can despise someone with all your might and still have to use the vous with them. To make matters worse, they may be allowed to use the tu - the informal you- with you, and depending on the situation, you may still have to use the vous with them! Ridicule, I know.

In any case, I have a huge bone to pick with the vous - I'm sure it's a futile bone, but I just can't help but be unnerved by the whole thing.  Which brings me back to my kiné session this evening...

I was lying on the table while my kiné stuck electrodes on my back. We started talking about my general practitioner, then about back surgery, and then, out of nowhere, I said: "vous savez, vous pouvez me tutoyer, si vous voulez" -"you know, you can use the tu with me, if you'd like."

I immediately wished I hadn't offered at all. She was visibly embarrassed that I had suggested it and told me that it was hard for her to use the tu with her patients.  I told her that I understood and that it was no big deal if she preferred to use the vous, but that if it was easier for her, I just wanted her to know that I was okay with it.  You see, here is the other thing about the vous - it is always the person in the position of power who can suggest that you drop the act and use the tu.  For example: an elder can tell a young person that  it's okay to use tu / a teacher can tell a student it's okay / a boss can tell an employee - but never the other way around.  I knew that since I was the patient,  the client, if you will, that it was up to me to tell her that it was okay. I didn't suggest that I would then use the tu back to her - but it is usually implied that when one person offers, both people use the tu. 

She told me that she could try but that it would be difficult and that she was "touchée" - touched- that I would offer.  I reiterated that it really was not a problem if she preferred not to, but then I also explained that I felt pretty ridiculous using the vous with her, seeing as how we are both young women who are pretty much the same age - it felt like a false air of formality that really wasn't necessary.

We'll see how my next session on Thursday goes; I'll be obligated to use the vous with her until she lets go of her obligation to French forms of respect and realizes that it's cool, she can use the tu with me and I won't think any less of her or think that we are close friends or lose any level of respect for her expertise.  She can still be the kiné and I can still be la patiente and we can use the freakin tu for goodness sakes.

For my Frenchie readers - did I completely cross the line? Was it weird to offer to use the tu seeing as how I see her twice a week and we are the same age?!  Au secours!


  1. No offense, dear FCC (ne le prends pas mal), but yes for me it's kind of weird, and if I were her I would have probably felt quite embarrassed.
    Because in France, we never say "tu" to our doctor unless we personally know him/her.
    The border between "vous" and "tu" is very thin sometimes, but it makes a big different to go from "vous" to "tu". "Tu" means we're friends (not necessarily close but still, friends). When we use it at work, it goes along with talking about our private life, kids and all.
    I must be very French because I am offended when someone says "tu" to me in a supermarket for instance just because I look young and they are young too (I should be flattered but it annoys me). I can understant that from an American's point of view it is absolutely ridiculous, but I am always amazed to hear Americans call the doctor/psychiatrist/director of their kids' school by their first name...
    On the other hand, I find that weird when bloggers say "vous" to each other, to me it sounds out of place...

    Lastly, I thought that saying "vous" inside the family was very very rare and only in aristocratic or some catholic families...

  2. Non, je ne le prends pas mal du tout - I asked for your help so thank you for commenting! I completely understand where you are coming from, and I too am annoyed when people use a "tu" with me and I know they are doing it because I look young (like where it would be completely inappropriate). However, I just thought that since she and I were pretty much the same age and since I see her so often, that it wouldn't be strange. I also don't like the hierarchy it creates between people - it irritates me. I feel bad that I may have embarrassed my kiné...it was not at all my intention. I meant to make things less formal and strained between us because it felt very "staged" or "fake". Who are we kidding?! I feel embarrassed now that I have put her in this position...rien à faire je crois. Hopefully she will just chalk it up to me being a crazy American! :-) Also, about the family thing...I don't know anyone who uses the vous with their parents, but I know lots of families who use the vous with their inlaws. I have a friends whose inlaws vouvoyer her! bizarre non?

  3. Thanks for the info about using "tu" with bloggers - see how difficult it is to navigate the vous/tu terrain? I hadn't even thought of that situation!

  4. No doubt, this is a bit of a stroll down memory lane. however here...in the US.....I think that the doctor would be considered to be the "person in power" ... Not the patient. Tho in almost any other business situation (except medicine, law and academia) the client would have the power. I think this is a respect thing due to the significant education on the part of the doctor from back in the day when few people were educated. I wonder if your practitioner thought YOU were out of line in broaching the subject....that it should have come from her? Hard to know as it does seem rather antiquated when two people of the same age are meeting frequently and discussing everything but the kitchen sink! I wonder if she'll get over it?! Hahaha!

  5. Ah yes, it's true that with the inlaws we often use the "vous"! My mother used it with my father's parents, which I agree is totally crazy! I thought you meant the extreme cases when children say "vous" to their own mom and dad: even crazier to me!!!
    But you're right, this whole "vous" thing is a very tricky thing...
    For your kiné, don't worry, if she's nice, she won't take it bad :)

  6. Hi, Debo. Well, I have a good example of this turning out positive for me...It turns out my gynecologist who is easily in her late 50's, wanted a private yoga lesson with me. I always use the "tu" form with my students (of course I always say, "On peut se tutoyer?" beforehand and my students always are fine and some of them, older woman students, have even shown relief!)
    Anyway, after our yoga lesson, I saw her at her office, me as her patient and wasn't sure if I needed to go back to the "vous" form or what so for several visits I would just avoid comments with it and then last time I went, I just had to ask if it was okay to say "tu" and she laughed and said it was fine. I suppose this is a rare story, but, nowadays, I think France is kind of mixed and the formalities are still there but there are some folks who will let these formalities slide if they find another person who also wants to let them slide...Voilà, my opinion. And by the way, I didn't know you had a herniated disc!!!


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