Letter from Prague The delicacies of you and You

23-01-2011 02:01 | Christian Falvey

English speaking foreigners to the Czech Republic who are interested in the language are often befuddled or even annoyed by the feature of formal and informal speech in Czech grammar, called vykání and tykání - that is, the formal, plural “you” and the informal, singular “you”. Nowhere is that characteristic more frowned upon than in multinational companies, where new employees, called “formal you” at the job interview, are renamed “demotic you” on their first day of work, and told to address everyone else accordingly.

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The first time I heard about such a policy, I marvelled at the sweeping cultural arrogance of it. Language is unarguably a sacred part of a person’s identity, cultural and otherwise; an American employee, for example, would most certainly not take well to an Australian boss ordering them to say ‘Goodaye mate’ every morning. To my surprise, that analogy didn’t work for a lot of young Czechs, who told me that they didn’t particularly mind the policy. They usually described the advantage of it as making relations smoother with those of their own age but opposite gender. The uncomfortable part, they often said, was when it came to saying “ty” to older women, who in turn also told me they didn’t appreciate it, but had to live with it.

The “you-You” custom is of course a common feature of many European, and other, languages. In some of those languages, like Swedish, people are happy to do away with the formalities, and I suppose that is one of the reasons why they feel free to impose it here on their employees. Monoglot English-speaking bosses probably assume the formality equates to “sir” and imagine they are saving their minions from obsequiousness. The Czech bosses who enforce the rules though, often I’ve found do so on the assumption that with it, they were taking on a measure of worldliness, in that English does not have formal and informal speech.

English, however, most certainly does have formal and informal speech. The big difference is that Czech formality is based on a grammatical function, while in English it is based more on word use (when you’re introduced to someone’s grandmother, for example, you don’t say “what’s up?”).

Saying “let’s all be informal in the workplace” is a grand thing on the one hand. Take my current situation with a colleague who I don’t see often: We have been rendered effectively speechless, reduced to smiling nods, because she once used the informal with me in a radio interview, but never had the appropriate opportunity to offer me “tykání” – to formally offer me informality, a rite of passage in Czech relationships where the more senior party puts out their hand and says “we can say ‘ty’”, or more simply says ‘”ahoj” (or “hi”, which you can’t say to unfamiliar people in Czech).

But foreign employers should use more couth in their quest for a more casual workplace. Switching off this grammatical function on someone, forcing a young man to say “ty” to an older female secretary for instance, or vice versa, can make him feel embarrassed and out of place rather than comfortable and more at ease.

The thing is, “tykání” in Czech has a stronger impact on a relationship than anything in English, like “friends call me Jack”. Sometimes, it can be like abruptly opening a door to a person’s personal life. Take for example one of my nosy neighbours. Older people and women dictate who they use the informal with, so when my older female neighbour of several years one day decided she finally wanted to get some personal information out of me, she prefaced the inquisition with the statement “we’re going to say ‘ty’ to each other now”. She still didn’t get the information she wanted out of me, but if we were still saying “vy”, she could hardly have even asked. It’s an impressive tactic; switching to the informal in Czech can sometimes really translate to “why don’t we get close and personal?” – something you don’t necessarily want with every workmate.

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