Is French more formal than English?

A reader has written to me asking interesting questions about English, French, work and which language is more formal. I have replied to question one, but as I’ve never worked in an office and have no experience of relationships with colleagues and hierarchies, I asked Petite Anglaise (who until recently worked in a French-speaking office in France and has worked in English-speaking environments) and my friend Laurent (who has worked in the US, India, the UK, Canada and France in both English and French-speaking environments) to answer questions two and three.
1) How do you translate vous in English generally?
I never do, as I only translate into French. However, I once read an article by a translator who explained how she dealt with this problem while translating a novel. In the passage she was working on, one of the characters was switching from "vous" to "tu" within the context of a conversation of a personal nature with someone she hadn’t known very long. The translator absolutely needed to convey this subtle shift in the relationship between the two characters, but as the same change of pronoun was impossible in English, she chose to convey it through the behaviour of the speaker. I can’t remember the exact phrasing of it, but it was something like:
"Je suis persuadée que vous pouvez y arriver."
"Mais je crains tant de vous décevoir."
"N’aie pas peur. Tu ne me décevras pas."
was translated as:
"I am convinced that you can do it."
"But I am so worried I might disappoint you."
She put her hand on his arm and said: "Don’t be scared. You won’t."
Translating this shift through a gesture which suggests more intimacy between them was daring but clever, in my opinion.
On a similar note, I occasionally have to choose whether to use "tu" or "vous" in my translations. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the game I translated last week aimed at children. Other times, it is necessary to discuss with the clients what kind of "feel" they want for their documents.
2) Would you agree that relationships between colleagues, and particularly between different hierarchical levels, are less formal in English-speaking countries? If so, why?
Petite Anglaise:
I haven’t worked in England, but I have worked for both American and British companies in Paris, and also a couple of Franco-French ones, and I’ve certainly noticed a difference.
I think it depends on the company, but generally I would agree that in English companies (whether based in England or France) there is a more informal atmosphere. Relationships are more direct, people joke around more readily. I think this is partly due to the after work social culture of England where you are more likely to let your hair down and share a few drinks with your colleagues, therefore know them better and strike up real friendships. Also due to language – there is no "vous" in England, which immediately makes conversations more direct.
Maybe it’s also to do with the style of management taught in business schools in France and England, but not having attended such a place, that is pure speculation on my part.
It is clear that in the Anglo-Saxon world, and particularly in America, work relationships are less formal than in France. However, there is a difference between "relationships between colleagues" and "hierarchical relationships". Relationships between colleagues are ruled by a different kind of formality in French-speaking and English-speaking environments. For example, the rules of politeness are very flexible with Anglo-Saxons: it is perfectly acceptable to only greet the people you know in the morning, and a general "hi" to an American open-space environment is enough. In France, I am viewed as rude because I won’t kiss or shake hands with my colleagues (and their guests) in my open-space office!
As for hierarchies, the differences are very clear: Anglo-Saxons are always ready to forget (temporarily) their grade to facilitate dialogue. Numerous meetings are organised with a vertical hierarchy where participants are specifically asked to give their opinion on everything, whatever their rank. If the debate leads to a consensus without the hierarchy having to give the final word, the meeting can end by accepting the suggestions made by the most junior elements. Hierarchy comes into play only to make a final decision in the absence of an agreement. French companies, however, see the hierarchy as the keystone of work organisation. In a meeting, the most ridiculous ideas are immediately adopted if they are the boss’s. A junior colleague may be allowed to speak, but if one of his/her good ideas is rejected by the boss, nobody will bat an eyelid. You are expected to be familiar with the hierarchy in your department as well as those around you, and a person is often referred to by their grade.
3) Do you agree with my general theory, which says that English is less formal than French. Why?
Petite Anglaise:
Business French (especially written) is riddled with extremely formal stock expressions, which are arguably meaningless and often patently insincere. I always noticed when translating a French business letter into English, it ended up approximately half as long, and not nearly so flowery. English tends to be straight to the point. I always like the example of
"Veuillez croire, Monsieur, en l’expression de ma considération distinguée" which in English is simply rendered
"Yours faithfully".
As to why? I think in English the emphasis is on unambiguous direct communication (see campaigns in favour of the use of "plain English" in documents produced by civil servants for the general public in the UK, for example) whereas in French there is a more traditional approach and people are more attached to often rather obsolete formules de politesse. What I find interesting is also that the more polite the letter, often the more insincere the sentiment might be. Even a letter of complaint is written with an exaggerated tone of politeness in French. And never signed "Angry from Yorkshire".
I think it is the way languages are used which has an impact on how formal they appear. English may seem to be less formal for two reasons, one which I understood immediately, and the other later. The most obvious one: English being the universal language in the business, scientific and technical worlds, the exchanges in this language are between people with different accents, vocabularies and even grammar. It is accepted in the Anglo-Saxon world that what matters is understanding, not style (at least in the industries I mentioned, not in the literary world). The revelation was that French speakers can’t bear people treating their language too casually, and do not make the slightest effort to tolerate inaccuracies or mistakes. They make fun of people’s accents, even regional accents. A vocabulary mistake, however small, raises knowing smiles and may even be corrected in front of everyone. So to sum up, French and English are languages with a similar level of formality, although the use of "vous" immediately adds a layer of formality in French which doesn’t exist in English. In general, French is used in a more formal manner by French speakers, whereas English speakers are more relaxed in the use of their language, and this is particularly true in a work environment.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that the management techniques used in Anglo-Saxon businesses were revolutionised by Dale Carnegie in the 60s (although for a lot of them, they started being applied fairly recently). This spelt big changes in the way authority was managed, the individual and his/her development was valued, managers were encouraged to listen to their staff and communication filters as well as Myers-Briggs profiles were used. All this means that hierarchical differences are reduced and communication is thereby improved. I think French businesses still haven’t caught up with these techniques.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:21+00:00 August 28th, 2006|Technical corner|5 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima August 29, 2006 at 11:34 am

    This is fascinating. I recently read Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, where she suggests that the English approach to work is to pretend the hierarchy and, in fact, work, isn’t actually happening. In her assessment, it’s sort of rude to impose a hierarchy as we’re all equal really, and it’s somewhat vulgar to talk about work. As such, we use lots of informal chatting to suggest we’re just socialising, and happen to be at work, and only revert to hierarchy as a last resort when consensus isn’t possible. I think this is almost certainly not the case in the US, where such delicate, class-obsessed issues don’t prevail in the same way.

  2. May September 3, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    I read a great article in Le Monde once about how some managers in France are purchasing the services of grammar coaches. Having somehow slid by up through the echelons, they are suddenly faced with complete ridicule for having misspelled one word in an otherwise inspirational powerpoint presentation.
    While I think bad spelling and bad grammar may be greeted with a raised eyebrow in the United States, it is definately not as important. This is particularly true in the business world, where words are made up on a daily basis (I don’t believe any other language can come close to the rate at which management-speak is invented.)
    However, I am not so sure that I agree with the idea that, at least in the US, the lack of formality derives from our multi-ethnicity. Americans are a friendly lot and its evident in everything we do (well, okay, not necessarily evident in our foreign policy, I admit), and I think people from other cultures automatically adopt that more open and friendlier attitude.
    But, more formality is not necessarily always a bad thing. I dont think the shennigans of ‘The Office’ would be possible in France.

  3. michael farris September 8, 2006 at 11:18 am

    I don’t have much experience with French people specifically, but in general on the European continent I think politeness is equated with maintaining distance and preemptive use of polite address is regarded almost as an invasion of personal space.
    Americans on the other hand tend to coflate politeness and friendliness. IME Americans are too anxious to use familiar forms in languages that have them under the logic of ‘what could be more polite than an offer of friendship?’ (we’ll leave aside the very different definitions of ‘friend’ in the US and Europe for right now).
    I don’t have enough experience with British people to say where they wind up in this landscape. I do think the tendency to pretend you’re not working and pretend your boss is really a ‘friend’ (American meaning) is also found in the US.

  4. Oleg Kuzinb September 19, 2006 at 8:36 am

    “Je suis persuadée que vous pouvez y arriver.”
    “Mais je crains tant de vous décevoir.”
    “N’aie pas peur. Tu ne me décevras pas.”
    was translated as:
    “I am convinced that you can do it.”
    “But I am so worried I might disappoint you.”
    She put her hand on his arm and said: “Don’t be scared. You won’t.”
    Translating this shift through a gesture which suggests more intimacy between them was daring but clever, in my opinion.
    What would happen if you retranslated the English back into French? Would you get the “tu” back? I don’t think so. It is creative but changes the original text. I would need to know more about the context: the country where this is taking place, the age of the speakers, and then maybe I might be able to sugget an equivalent.

  5. céline September 19, 2006 at 8:37 am

    Like I said, this is something I remember reading a long time ago, so I don’t have any more details about the context. I think that in a literary work, a certain amount of creativity is allowed, even required, from the translator to convey the atmosphere, the feelings etc. that sometimes goes way beyond simple words, hence the need to sometimes be “daring but clever”. If you stick with the words, you’re in danger of staying on the surface of things.
    Of course, a back-translation (a terribly mechanical and unforgiving process which seems very out of place to me in this type of document) would never get you back to the original text, word for word (does it ever? Doesn’t that depend on the translator? Is that a valid test for a good translation?). However, I think that the gesture, which isn’t, admittingly, in the source text, does actually would convey the sort of shift in relationship that is suggested by the use of “tu”. How would you suggest going around the problem of the lack of “tu” in English, generally?

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