Formality in Spain vs France

Growing up, the biggest and only problem I had in communicating with people is that I was shy. When it came to talking to people, I would simply address adults as Mr., Mrs., or Ms. and anyone who was a teenager or younger was addressed by their first name or nickname. Now that I am considered an adult, life has gotten to be more complicated. There is some confusion as to how to address others. Do I address other adults my age as Mr. or Mrs. or do I just say their name? Usually a tap on the shoulder or addressing the person by looking at them when speaking to them works. This is where I view other languages as more logical than English. In languages like Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and French, there are different levels of formality. However, those levels of formality do not always transfer culturally.

In class in the United States, I always referred to my language teachers formally, using the “usted” form in Spanish and the “vous” form in French. I view my professors or teachers are people who are older and wiser; people that I respect. Therefore, I used a higher form when speaking to them. My classmates, on the other hand, frequently used the informal way of speaking to someone to talk to my professors. Surprisingly, the professor would not correct them. It could be because we are studying a new language and they are more focused on if we get the grammar right. On the flip side, I have also had professors that have asked me to address them by their first name.

My experience abroad has been different, at least in the French classroom. I have seen the formal way, or “vous” always used between teachers and students even though the students may be way younger than the teacher. It surprised me that a teacher would refer to one student directly in a formal manner.

Although Spanish is a romance language like French, I was surprised to see that Spain did things quite differently from France. One cultural aspect that I had a hard time getting used to during my time in Madrid was addressing those above me informally. My host mother, who was in her 70s, asked me to address her like a friend. The staff at the agency and my professors all asked me to address them informally when speaking to them. Being raised in a culture where I had to be formal to everyone who was older than myself or in an authoritative position, I found it hard to address anyone as something other than formal.

My observations are solely based on my experiences when I went abroad. I hear that in Latin America, the situation is different from that of Spain. Has anyone else ever had this experience? If you have experienced anything similar to what I did, or even very different, please leave a comment below! I would love to hear about your experiences!

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6 thoughts on “Formality in Spain vs France

  1. In Brazil it is special : they always use the formal form, você (same as Spanish usted) even lovers and mates between each other . To the point that I quickly forgot the “tu” conjugation I had just learnt .

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    1. That’s really interesting! I’ve studied Portuguese before and I’ve only seen people use você as well. I didn’t know if it was supposed to be polite or not. Thank you for sharing!

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      1. I came to the conclusion Brazilians completely forgot what “tu” and “você” were supposed to be originally . I don’t mean educated ones but I spent most of my time there with Black and poor folks I only heard and used você . After my initial amazement I forgot the whole thing too, after all it was simpler . And you say it might be the same in Portugal .
        So you studied Portuguese, Spanish, French, anything else ? Pretty impressive, especially from an Anglophone . Well done .

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      2. I used você when I visited Portugal but I wasn’t there long enough to see what people mostly used. I was with other American students when I visited, and I only visited for a short time, so I didn’t get a whole lot of interaction with locals. I do agree that just using você is simpler. I like that about Portuguese.

        Thank you! Spanish and French are my majors at school but I took two semesters of Brazilian Portuguese and have maintained it since taking the classes. I’ve tried to self-teach Japanese and Korean but I’ve mostly forgotten what I had learned in Japanese. My Korean is at a basic level (I did take a beginner class but am now teaching myself).

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  2. Extreme orient after Latin, that’s a big jump . You could make a pause in Sanskrit in-between .
    Beside Portuguese and Spanish I was yesteryear to speak in Italian, the closest language to French . And I’ve been able to manage in two Arabics, Maghreb and Egyptian versions, surprisingly different . But all these languages learnt by oneself mainly in the streets or new friends’ homes don’t stick eternally if they are no more spoken, unlike what is learnt with books and method . At least in my case . I remember more from my Latin and old Greek school studies than from more recent travelling acquisitions .
    Coming back to formality I noticed in Quebec people behave more in a “Spanish” way, they tutoient spontaneously . Probaly the hot climate of Canada …

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