The polished mahogany stairs creaked with age as I followed Madame through the shadows to the third floor. After a four-hour drive through a relentless downpour, I barely had enough energy to sigh in awe at the house’s astounding towers, cringe at the stuffed deer heads, or admire the delicate antique furniture. My Parisian host mother had kindly offered me one of the spacious rooms in her family’s country house (which she sometimes refers to as a château) in Brittany for the weekend. I was touched by her generosity and grateful for the opportunity to see a dimension of French life outside of Paris. I was eager to get to bed, but as I continued up the seemingly endless staircases, it never occurred to me that some of the most important lessons I would learn about France that weekend would occur within the walls of the gigantic house.
When we finally stopped in my bedroom, Madame got to work making the bed. I joined in, hoping to be a helpful guest, but as I arranged the sheets and blankets, an expression of confusion and disapproval appeared on Madame’s face. “Pourquoi est-ce que tu le fais comme ça? Tu n’es pas habituée à faire un lit ? » she asked (Why are you making the bed like that ? Are you not used to making a bed ?). A little taken aback, I replied that I was doing it the way I was taught in the U.S., but she persisted, asking why I liked sleeping in a bed with the sheets and covers folded down beyond the pillow. Before I could think of a polite response, she declared, “Il faut que tu le fasses comme ça”, (It is essential that you do it like this) taking the linens out of my hands and demonstrating. Her use of the verb falloir (a verb connoting exigency that doesn’t translate directly into English) exuded a necessity that seemed a little extreme to me, almost as if she was giving me an order.
Throughout the weekend, moments like these occurred again and again; instead of making gentle suggestions or asking me to fulfill tasks a certain way, Madame simply told me what to do. Her manner of speaking often made me feel instructed, directed, and even commanded, instead of guided. On top of an overwhelming responsibility to fulfill statements necessitated by the subjunctive tense, I was also startled by my host mother’s frequent use of imperative verbal constructions, which express direct orders. For example, instead of recommending that I opened my window every morning to let in the sunlight, she would say, “Ouvre les fenêtres le matin!” (Open the windows in the morning!)
This experience has made me sharply aware of the degree to which the phrasing of just one sentence can dramatically influence a social situation. When I returned to Paris, I realized that Madame’s grammatical forms are used quite often in French and that fluent speakers don’t seem offended by them at all. On the other hand, in my experience, the imperative tense is used much more rarely in English, and if it is used, its connotation is decidedly more negative—I hear it most often when speakers correct behavior, address children, or train their dogs. The subjunctive tense is not very frequent in English. My first conclusion from these observations was that I had overreacted a bit, interpreting Madame’s words as the strict orders they signify in Anglophone social situations, even though they weren’t meant to be taken so harshly.
But I’ve realized that there’s more to it. It’s not just that the subjunctive and imperative tenses are more common here than in the US; in fact, certain patterns of their usage have convinced me that when present in conversation, they reinforce the subtle power dynamics omnipresent in social life here. Specifically, I hear them most often when the distribution of power between two interlocutors is not even. This power has nothing to do with physical strength and everything to do with characteristics such as status and age, to which the French attach immense significance. Interlocutors’ use of the disparate pronouns “vous” and “tu” towards each other linguistically signals the existence of such a relationship—the individual with more “power” is addressed as “vous”, the most respectful pronoun, while the less “powerful” person is referred to as “tu”, a pronoun that’s only respectful when used towards a close friend or family member. I hear most instances of the subjunctive and imperative tenses when a person with more social power, the “vous”, expresses a desire or expectation to the “tu”.
The association of these two grammatical constructions is no accident, which has made it clear to me that my interpretation of Madame’s orders was somewhat correct. Just as she often directs me using the subjunctive and the imperative, she consistently calls me by “tu” and has asked me to call her by “vous”. These linguistic distinctions are consistent with our relationship—as both an older (and thus wiser) woman and my hostess, Madame is in the position of authority, at least with regard to issues at home. So, in a way, her insistence on making the bed her way was a subtle, and maybe even unconscious, expression of her power over me.
Becoming comfortable with this reality is one of the most culturally-important challenges I’ve overcome here so far. While I found it hurtful that at 20 years old, I was still linguistically treated like a child in Madame’s speech, I reasoned with myself that if other French speakers aren’t offended by such language, I shouldn’t be either. Such a firm grammatical presence of power dynamics was shocking at first, but the French seem to accept them as part of life without thinking twice.
Caitlin Ross (Haverford College)