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Is French really more formal than English?

by Cam's Writing

How to deal with French being so formal

When comparing English and French, one of the first things you’ll notice is how much more formal French seems to be, especially written French. Of course, using “vous” instead of “tu” when addressing someone reinforces this impression. But apart from that, is French really more formal than English? And what does it mean for your marketing content?

When should you use “vous”?

If you’ve ever tried learning French, you know how tricky this question is. French people themselves might not always agree.

This blog is about content marketing, not giving French lessons. That’s why we won’t go into detail about the different ways to say “you” in French, depending on the context and the type of conversation you’re having. We leave this to the language teachers. But we’re still going to discuss when you should use “vous” in your marketing content.

Using “vous” isn’t just about being polite and showing respect to an older person or your line manager. In written French, “vous” is by far the most common way to address your audience. To be honest, the question should have been when should you use “tu”? Here are some answers:

You’re creating content for children
If you’re writing content for kids or teenagers, it’s easy, you should use “tu” in all your communications. Only switch to “vous” when you’re talking to the parents.

Your audience is young, your tone is casual
It’s quite interesting to see that Adidas and Reebok are using “tu” in French, but Nike doesn’t. And if you’re wondering how they’ve translated their famous “just do it”, it’s simple: they didn’t! No “tu peux le faire” or “Faites-le simplement”, they kept their slogan in English – and avoided the question.

You communicate on social media
Different channels of communication, different rules. You can use “tu” on Facebook and Instagram, and “vous” on your main e-commerce website. Is it cheating? Maybe. But it’s also a good way to create a special bond with your followers.

You want a catchy tagline
Until 2019, Garnier’s tagline in the UK was simply “Take care”. In France, it’s still “Prends soin de toi”, a literal translation that is using “toi” and not “vous”. Why? Because it sounds much more personal and… caring. However, if you visit Garnier’s French website, you’ll see that all the content is written using “vous” to address the customer.

The risk of using “tu” with the wrong audience is real – and we’re not just talking about the consistency of your content. French people might see it as a lack of respect, some will blame the influence of the English language. Some might even have the unpleasant impression that you’re trying to infantilise them. So always make sure you know your audience well before choosing to ditch the “vous”.

Greetings: what to use in French?

Have you ever had to localise marketing emails? If so, you’ve probably spent some time scratching your head trying to pick the right word for “hello”.

Hey, hi, hello
You might think this one is easy… But it’s a trap! Using “Salut” in a marketing or business email is a big no-no in French, even if you’re using “tu”. Of course, French people say it all the time, but starting any form of written communication with “Salut” requires that you have a close relationship with the recipient. Most French people would be offended (or think your email is poorly translated) if it begins like that.

Dear Firstname
This type of greeting is still quite common in English, but its French equivalent, “Cher” or “Chère” for a woman, is outdated and pompous. Furthermore, “Cher” is an adjective so it’ll have to be adapted depending on the gender of the recipient.
If you want your email to sound formal, you should also avoid calling your customers by their firstnames. Instead, use “Madame Name”, “Monsieur Name” or if you don’t know their gender, “Madame, Monsieur”.

Good morning, good afternoon and good night
Finally, for once, this is easier in French! In an email, you can use “Bonjour” at any time of the day. If you really want to be specific, you can use “Bonsoir” for emails sent between 6pm and midnight, but it’s really not necessary.

Writing like you talk

Most English copywriters swear only by the motto “write like you speak”. And indeed, if you look at most British blogs, brands’ web content or marketing emails, you’ll notice that most of it is written just like spoken language.

It’s very different in French. You can adopt a casual and informal tone of voice. You can even take some liberties with grammar rules or use untranslated English words in your text. That’s actually very common. But you’ll never really write like you talk, not as much as the English people do.

The only place where you can be as informal as you want, even contracting “tu as” into “t’as” for example, is your tagline. And again, make sure you take your audience into consideration before applying any kind of poetic licence to your French content marketing.

At Cam’s Writing, we don’t only sell our ability to write content in French and in English. Our main strength is that we’re experts of the French and British markets, with a deep understanding of the cultural differences.
If you’d like to know more about our services or if you need help localising your content, give us a shout.