Você, Tu, and You

To "you" or not to "you": that is the question. Well, also there are no questions. Four observations on formal address in the Portuguese language.

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You can learn a lot about a country’s people by observing how formal or informal they are with each other in their daily language usage.  As a foreigner in Portugal, I’ve found that if you compare the Portuguese spoken here to the Portuguese spoken in Brazil, you’ll notice that many of the ways people address each other are less formal in Brazil.  Likewise — and despite what I’ve said before about Portuguese and Spanish not being interchangeable languages — most of the ways people address each other in next-door Spain, where Spanish, another Romance language, is spoken, are also less formal.  I’m not a linguist or a historian, so I can’t explain the social back story that gave rise to these differing circumstances, but I do know that language and culture are intertwined and if you want to understand the Portuguese people in global context, a good way to do this is to look at their choices regarding one deceptively simple word: you.
I remember when I met my mother-in-law during my first visit to Portugal.  She had prepared a lovely spread for lunch, chock full of typical Portuguese foods – charcuterie, freshly baked bread, and a smorgasbord of desserts.  I did not speak Portuguese back then, so I spoke to her in Spanish, and my not-yet-husband, Nuno, filled in any holes in her comprehension (and mine) with a fine blend of Portuñol (Portuguese and Spanish; this is not a real word, for the uninitiated).  At one point, she looked at me with a smile and asked, “A Audrey gosta do queijo?”  This translates to “Does Audrey like the cheese?” My immediate thought was why she was asking Nuno for my opinion about the food.  Am I not sitting right here?  (Followed by: should I be concerned about the family dynamic?) It was only later, when I got the debriefing from Nuno, that I understood she was simply being polite.  In Portugal, it would have been rude, or at least unseemly, to ask if you like the cheese when we hardly knew each other.  So, she asked if Audrey liked it.
This was a big eye opener for me, and I’ve come to think of it as something quintessentially Portuguese.  In contemporary Brazil and Spain, the convention of calling someone by their name instead of using the word “you” does not exist.  If you speak even a little Portuguese (or Spanish), you might wonder why my mother-in-law didn’t just use the pronoun você (usted), which is more the formal version of “you” as opposed to the less formal tu ().  But unlike their Brazilian counterparts, the Portuguese rarely use você when talking directly to someone, especially someone they have just met or do not know well, because it, too, is considered impolite – although for some people, você is also excessively formal and a first name “a Audrey” is less so.  And heaven forbid addressing a total stranger with tu like a barbarian.  
Head spinning yet?
In my experience, Brazil and Spain are countries in which the social distance between people who have never met before, or between older and younger people, is not quite as wide as it is in Portugal, and fades more quickly.  As an American, I’ve found it fascinating, and frustrating, to navigate situations in which I can be confident about being on a first name basis with someone in Portugal (or not), when I can use tu (if ever), and when I should expect to be referred to as Dona Audrey (Ms. Audrey), Menina Audrey (Miss Audrey), Professora Audrey (Professor Audrey), a Doutora (Doctor), or some other honorific that is, alas, completely wasted on me because I could not care less about any of these distinctions. 
To the Portuguese, on the other hand, there are a whole host of educational and socio-economic class connotations in these choices that speak volumes about your respect for, or even deference to, the person you’re speaking with. (Er…the person with whom you are speaking.)  Granted, these are subtleties that you won’t even pick up on if you don’t speak Portuguese, and they won’t matter at all for tourists and foreigners generally, for whom the Portuguese do not have any expectations of following language “rules.”  But for a non-native trying to integrate into Portuguese society, the social distance built into the language often means having to think twice about how to say something you already know how to say.
What does this all mean for Portuguese culture?  I’ll let you be the judge.  Below, I talk about four observations I’ve made concerning the use, or avoidance, of the word “you” in Portugal.

Reliance on the Passive Voice

As an American, I didn’t realize how much we use the word “you” until I was forced to construct a sentence talking about individuals, but not an individual, without it.  My grade school English teacher is probably rolling over in her grave right now at how tortured that sentence comes across. 
Let’s try an example.  Imagine you’re talking to a friend about a little Portuguese café down the street like the ones I’ve talked about before here, and you tell the friend something along the lines of  “you can actually get a pretty decent meal there.”  Now, the “you” in that sentence refers to your friend, but it’s also a general reference: what you really mean is that anyone can get a pretty decent meal there, not just your friend.
In Portugal, if you were talking to someone who isn’t a close friend or family member, which naturally means avoiding the word “you” in that sentence, you might instead say something like “come-se bem” in the café, which literally translates to “it is eaten well.”  This use of the passive voice avoids the word “you” but maintains the general idea that “anyone” eats well, and we might better understand the meaning as something closer to the British formulation “one eats well” at the café.    From there, the passive voice options abound for the Portuguese:  “Está-se bem” or one is well (in a particular place or in good weather); “Entende-se” or it is understood (by people), etc. 
However, avoidance of the word “you” and reliance on the passive voice will naturally make it more challenging to ask a question. 
If you want to ask if I, Audrey, like something, you need the active voice, with “you” as the subject:  “Audrey, do you like this long, rambling blog post about grammar?” This is because there’s no sensical way to ask my opinion using the passive voice: “Is this long, rambling blog post about grammar liked?”  By whom?  By me? 
But wait, the clever reader thinks, just use my first name instead of “you”:  “Does Audrey like this long, rambling blog post?”
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand we’re back to the beginning of avoiding the word “you.” 
Herein lies the rub.  Although the word “you” is socially prescribed in many instances (i.e., you’re not supposed to say it directly), it’s also true that using a first name is deferential, or a marker of at least a certain degree of respect (i.e., like my mother-in-law asked me before we knew each other: “A Audrey gosta do queijo?” ).  But what if you’re with a group of people of your same age or social class and you don’t want to sound overtly deferential?  Well, there are two options: 
  1. Use the passive voice;
  2. Don’t ask any personal questions.
I have attended ***many*** a dinner party, lunch, or meeting in Portugal in which no one asks me any questions.  Literally, not a single one.  But there’s no way to learn anything about me – or me to learn anything about you – avoiding the word “you” and using the passive voice to this degree.  I’ve sat spellbound watching as Portuguese who are meeting each other for the first time sustain conversation for an entire afternoon only by making comments to each other about their own lives or the lives of people who are not present — and responding to each other in kind — but no one asks anything of anyone ever, other than logistical questions like “where is the bathroom” that, you guessed it, don’t require the word “you.”
Of course, the Portuguese are savvy, and these aren’t awkward, stilted encounters.  Portuguese social life is chock full of conversation, jokes told, stories shared.  And asking personal questions is considered rude in many cultures, so I can’t fault the Portuguese on this score.  Still, I think it’s fair to say that over the course of my life I have been asked more questions by complete strangers in Brazil and Spain than I have by people I’ve met in supposedly low-key social settings in Portugal.  As an American, all this politeness means it can take a long time to get to know someone new here. 

Children, Teachers, and Parents

Portuguese children are almost universally addressed with the informal tu by everyone, including people they’ve never met.  My children attend a Portuguese school and have been addressed with tu by their teachers since the beginning – and, curiously, all the children address the teachers with tu as well.  However, I and the other parents are expected to follow the “you”-avoiding conventions of adults when we address the teacher.  This means that in a discussion with a teacher I’ve known for a few years now, who’s probably a good twenty years younger than me, where we are talking about a preschooler who threw food on the ground or some other toddler silliness, I have had to address the teacher using her first name: “A Ana acha que a minha filha…” or “Does Ana think that my daughter…” This will never cease to be excessively formal to me when I hear it, given the banality of the topic at hand.   
Besides using tu with them, adults will also ask children they don’t know direct questions, such as what their name is, how old they are, or if they like something, that they would never dream of asking another adult they don’t know.  Sometimes I wish people would feel the same freedom to ask questions of me.  Think of the conversational possibilities if someone asked me whether I like ice cream!  But even when I tell people they can use tu with me, it doesn’t seem to open up quite as many doors as quickly as it does with children.  Ah, youth.
As for the parents of my children’s friends from school, who are mostly all the same age as me and of the same social class, I’ve gotten a mixture of você and tu.  (Not a lot of people are going to tackle a mouthful like the name Audrey as pronounced in Portuguese.  OW-dree?  AW-dree?  It all sounds awful.)  But me, I play the foreigner card and go straight for tu with them like I don’t know any better.  Come on.  We’re talking about humans who have only recently learned to control their own bowel movements.  But again, since almost no one I don’t already know fairly well asks me any personal questions anyway, the issue of whether to use você, tu, or a Audrey doesn’t really come up all that much.  Forehead slapping emoji.
Although it’s rare, there are some families in Portugal in which the children address their parents with você instead of tu, which would have been common in times past, and the parents also address their children with você, which would not.  Some people claim it’s just what their families have always done, but these families have a reputation in the wider population for being queques, a derogatory term that literally means muffin or cake and conveys the idea of “new money” that feels the need to prove something.  I guess this must be the equivalent of American families giving their children first names like Kensington.

Workplace Culture

There aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to the use of tu vs você among work colleagues, other than always start with você and only move on to tu if you’ve been specifically invited to do so by your boss.  Case in point: a friend of mine who works for one of the largest corporations in Portugal.  She manages a team of people who are mostly younger than her and tells them plainly that they can use tu with her.  This “informality” of not having a social hierarchy built into day-to-day language helps with communication and to build comradery in the group.  That’s what the use of você, subtly or not so subtly, implies: hierarchy.  I’ve listened to her recount stories of meetings between her team, in which everyone uses tu, and other teams, in which her fellow manager expects everyone to use você, where people are constantly switching back and forth between tu and você depending upon who in the meeting they are addressing in that moment.  I find this baffling.  And maybe a teensy, weensy bit…stupid?  I mean, isn’t the Age of Empire over?
By contrast, years ago I used to work for a trade office of the Spanish government and everyone used , managers and non-managers alike.  In fact, when I first met the department head, I dutifully started off with usted, which would be appropriate in most of Latin America, and he quickly laughed me off and said that wasn’t necessary.  Eventually, I learned that the number of social situations in Spain that require this formality have shrank considerably over time.  A Spanish grandma might expect usted, a judge in a court of law, too, and I’m sure there’s something even more formal that you’re supposed to say if you meet the Spanish royal family, but for pretty much everyone else in Spain, there’s tu.   
When I interact with people in Portugal who are at their place of work and I am a customer or client, I can expect that no one, of course, will ever use tu and will, in fact, add on some titles.  In conversation at the bank, I am usually Professora Audrey (Professor Audrey) but my bank account is under the name Professora Doutora Audrey (Professor Doctor Audrey).  Doutor or doutora is held in especially high regard in Portugal – I’ve heard that some people apparently request it on their credit and debit cards – and as a holder of an actual doctorate degree, I am one of the few “doctors” in Portugal who is technically a doctor.  The principal of my children’s school is referred to as Doutor João (Doctor John), and while a very accomplished individual, he is not a doctor.  (I should note that a medical doctor is a médico or médica, so you could say “O Doutor Smith é medico” but never “O médico Smith é doutor.”).
With costumer service agents, I am usually Dona Audrey or Ms. Audrey (when they don’t know how old I am) or Menina Audrey, or Miss Audrey (literally, Girl Audrey) if we’ve met in person and they want to be flattering.  I don’t get senhora very often because that’s usually reserved for someone much older, but the clock is ticking.  One of my all-time favorites is reserved for men of high status, such as political officeholders or heads of large organizations: Senhor Engenheiro So-and-so, or Mr. Engineer So-and-so.  Like with “doctors,” there are not as many trained engineers in Portugal as people called engenheiro, and unfortunately there isn’t a Senhora Engenheira equivalent for women.  However, about a quarter of all Portuguese engineers are women now, so hopefully the clock is ticking on this one, too.
I’ll wrap up this meandering post with a little story.  When my son was a baby – I’ll leave his name out here for privacy reasons – my husband used to bounce him up and down to a little song he’d made up that, looking back on it, nicely captures the Portuguese spirit of aiming high through honorifics:
O Senhor Engenheiro Arquiteto (name)
O bebé mais bonito da toda a sua rua
O Senhor Engenheiro Arquiteto (name)
O primeiro português que vai até a lua
Mr. Engineer Architect (name)
The most beautiful baby on his block
Mr. Engineer Architect (name)
The first Portuguese that’s going to the moon
You can never start the titles too young.
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