The Informal “You” In European Missions

Everyone knows that missionary work in Europe is a massive failure. The church has need of substantial PR boost and an entirely new strategy for appealing to contemporary Europeans and their immigrant populations. I suspect that there are a number of problems that need to be addressed, not least among them is that the traditional method of proselytizing in Europe is seen as outmoded at best and an offensive version of American imperialism at worst. However, all of these problems are compounded by a long-standing policy for European missionaries to only use the “formal” form of “you” in all conversations, regardless of whether it is culturally or grammatically correct to do so.

European languages make a distinction between a formal and informal “you”. The formal “you” is typically used as a sign of respect when speaking to people of authority, advanced age, or strangers. However, it is not generally used to refer to people with whom you have acquaintance, friends, or your age peers. Missionaries in Europe, however, are required to use the formal form when speaking to anyone. This is particularly humiliating to refer to your companion this way in public, children, or other people close to your same age.

As I understand it, this rule is set forth by the Area Authorities based in Germany, many of whom do not actually speak these languages. Interestingly, this policy does not exist, or at least is not enforced, in other geographical locations (even where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken) where a formal “you” exists. Though many theories abound about why European missions are required to use this form, one popular theory in my mission was that the formal form was more commonly used in German, and was presumed to be universal among other European languages by German speakers. The real reasons, however, are probably unknown, even to those who currently enforce them.

This rule is particularly problematic at this time in Europe because it makes it nearly impossible to form relationships with one of the most important demographics for missionary work: college students. Missionaries are hamstrung in talking to these people because it just became too awkward to explain why we were speaking to them so strangely. It intended to put distance between missionaries and their peers, but this distance has become one of the primary problems with the image of Mormons in Europe. Not only do we have to contend with the fact that we are religious, American, presumably strange, possibly polygamous, possibly black-hatted beardies, but we also talk funny. I know that missionaries in my mission just avoided our age peers because it was just too embarrassing. There is no doubt that this is one factor that contributes to the failure of European missions.

30 Replies to “The Informal “You” In European Missions”

  1. I didn’t serve in Europe, but I did serve in Asia where similar grammatical structures exist. Do you think that this policy to use a formal “you” really explains a significant portion of the failure of missionary work across Europe, or is it just symptomatic of broader myopia and lack of cultural awareness among the Area Authorities?

    Where I served we were taught and encouraged to use the formal you at all times. In fact, the MTC teachers would frequently refuse to disclose how to say the less formal forms of you (I remember one whispering it like it was some great secret), so this policy was semi-official.

    In practice, though, out in the areas missionaries knew how to adapt and use the appropriate form, even when the diminitive was appropriate. I guess I’m skeptical that missionaries out in the field adhere to the policy even when their gut feelings about the language tell them its inappropriate.

  2. Interesting. A counter-example though: Although the Finnish language also has a formal “you” (te) and an informal “you” (sinä), Mormon missionaries have been using the informal variant for as long as I can remember.

  3. Missionaries in Latin America–Spanish-speaking ones at least–are required to use the formal “you” with anyone over the age of 14. While some missions might be lax about enforcing the rule, it exists none the less, and I’d bet most enforce it. The end result is that Mormon missionaries sound weird.

  4. I never found it difficult to explain why I used “Sie” in Germany. Perhaps it is asked of us for the precise reason you state – to discourage missionaries from hanging out with those of similar age. The use of the formal reemphasizes that we’re not there to be buddies with anyone.

    I never heard that we were supposed to use it with animals or children, however.

  5. Lief,
    You’re right, I don’t think that it explains a “significant” portion, but it does represent a disconnect. At times this rule is sometimes enforced more than others, but because it is a rule that requires obedience, I often felt that I would not be able to baptize if I broke it!

    I didn’t know that. Thanks!

    I agree that this is the reasoning, but this seems to be a really bad reason. Hanging out with other people of the same age is the best way to do missionary work. Also, English speakers don’t have some arbitrary linguistic rule (like using “thee”) and don’t seem to have any more problems than European ones, and they are able to baptize a lot more young people!

  6. Troy’s right — this policy does apply in Latin America. Furthermore, it’s introduced to many or most foreign-speaking missionaries during their training in the MTC. In my experience, though, very few Latin American missionaries actually follow the rule, although they may modify their behavior when mission leadership is around. The formal you is increasingly uncommon in many Latin American countries, and most missionaries learn most of their Spanish on the ground. The formal “usted” voice really stands little chance in such a context.

  7. Encouraging missionaries to use normal, i.e. informal, language with their peers might help a little bit, but by and large there is no reason, in German-speaking countries at least, to use anything but a formal register with anyone who is older/higher in the social pecking order. There it is the custom for the senior conversation partner to offer the use of informal language to the junior partner when the former is good and ready. For the junior to address her senior informally before this ceremony has taken place is at least as damaging as addressing a cat as a head of state. There are plenty of native speakers who remain on formal terms after years of acquaintance, which is a fact of life most Americans probably have a hard time wrapping their minds around. And it’s not just the second person; there are many other markers of register, such as greetings, that missionaries mangle on a regular basis.

  8. There is no formal you in cebuano, so I can’t speak from personal experience. My wife did serve in the Padova mission though. However, she had multiple years of italian before she went to the MTC, and as a musician, had been singing in Italian for a very long time. Hence, she sounded more Italian than most. It wasn’t so much a matter of what form of “you” she used, as to whether or not she, as an american, could be accepted by the population, and whether she could overcome the strong catholic culteral anchors.

    Still, I think all of her converts were not italian.

  9. This was the one rule for which I could find no rationalization for–okay so there might have been one or two more.

    The only time we were to use the informal “you” was when we were praying. Is that the case in Europe as well?

  10. Correlation. I think it’s something the LDS church is going to need to overcome to deal with an increasingly pluralistic world. (not that Protestants are doing any better in Europe).

    I think Paul gave us a great model. To Jews he was a Jew, to Greeks he was a Greek. Obviously speaking to people in a language form they are familiar with is necessary.

  11. I don’t remember being told to avoid using the informal ‘je’ in Dutch. The constant use of the formal ‘uw’ was a marker of a lack of fluency, and I remember members complaining missionaries sounded too informal.

    We were also discouraged from contacting too heavily with young adults — we were told we were looking for families. That thinking has changed. European missions, because of a revelation Elder Perry had, focuses more on 18-30 year-olds, using institute-run Outreach centers, among other things.

  12. While we’re making language more informal so we can make better inroads with young people, why not stop dressing so funny, too? White shirts? Too stiff. Short haircuts? Too gay.

    I think the mode of address, if it is a factor at all, is a very minor one. Missionaries will always be weird, always sound funny, and always talk about subjects that the investigator hasn’t really considered before, many of which sound on the surface like absurd fantasy.

  13. Perhaps the relatively high baptismal rate in Brazil is due to the fact that everybody uses the third person pronouns! The second person has fallen out of use, so in a sense there is no formal or informal in practice in Brazilian Portugese.

    I wonder if the missionary rules follow the same odd logic that Elder Oaks presented in his talk about “thee” and “thou” in English prayer.

  14. I agree with RT, in my experience most of us spoke to our companions and anyone close to our age and younger in the informal you (“vos” in Guatemala).

  15. Correction,

    My wife had 1 Italian convert.

    She was allowed to use informal with missionaries the same sex as her and with children.

    She said about the same, that people would “beg” her to use the informal who were her same age once she got to know them.

  16. All,
    This information is all very useful. It looks like this rule does get sporadically enforced and observed both in Latin America and Europe, so I think that it is probably not possible to get any real correlation between its use and the number of young adult baptisms. I can say that in my mission this was almost universally observed and that it did seem difficult to initiate meaningful relationships with young adults, in my experience.

    That said, I also don’t think this is the root cause of the problem, but more one problem among many which makes us seem too distant from the cultures of Europe to be appealing. I disagree with JW that speaking incorrectly is simply a part of our branding in Europe, on the same level as white shirts and name tags. I think that missionaries do need to offer something different, but they cannot be too different or else they won’t be effective. At the same time, the white-shirt model has proven to be massively ineffective, and so I see no reason that we shouldn’t think about alternative ways of doing missionary work. Our current model grew out of a 19th c. American cultural paradigm. Why not think about other ways of doing it that will yield better results? I don’t think we have to defend the status quo simply because it is the status quo.

  17. I often wonder what difference native mission presidents would make. I think this is more common in places other than Europe, but it seems to me it would help make that negotiation between mormon difference and culture.

    When I lived in London, I saw the elders street contacting in normal clothes as a pilot, test program. No idea what the results were.

  18. I did not serve my mission in Europe but I have live in Germany for four years. I really think you can’t go wrong, at least in Germany, using the formal Sie form. It is considered the height of rudeness to address someone you don’t know in Du form (unless they are a fellow student, a child, a dog). Even at church some of the older member insisted on using the formal greeting with me even though they had known me for two years.

  19. I served in France and yes we had to use “vous” instead of “tu.” It was strictly enforced and strictly followed by the missionaries. We followed this rule so much that it was humorous to address another missionary with “tu.”

    I approve of the formal usage since it forces missionaries to be polite. If people are going to convert to the gospel, they’ll understand that missionaries have to follow this rule. It’s not like more people will start to convert just because missionaries start using hip slang terms. People come to Church to avoid the mundane slang found on the streets.

  20. black-hatted beardies

    TT, were you a missionary in France? We were often mistaken for Amish people. The explanation floating among the missionary in my mission was that when the 1985 Harrison Ford film “Witness” was dubbed in French, they used the word “Mormon” instead of “Amish.” I have no idea if this is true or not.

  21. I see this rule as a recognition of the fact that missionaries aren’t particularly good at picking up linguistic and cultural nuances (that reality is probably due, at least in part, to the nature of missionary training and mission experience itself). Requiring missionaries to exclusively speak in formal terms may make them sound weird, but it avoids the issue of teaching them or waiting for them to pick up on the complex nuances that govern terms of address.

    While there isn’t exactly a tu/vous-type distinction in Chinese, there are definitely other ways in which to speak in honorific terms. There is a cultural expectation that you will use honorific terms with respect to guests, your elders, etc., and self-deprecatory language with respect to yourself. Not only are missionaries not required to speak in these terms, but most don’t even learn more than a couple honorific words and phrases, let alone the cultural expectations regarding their use. Missionaries speak some terrible hodgepodge of informal, teenagery Chinese, sprinkled with quasi-classical terms learned from Church, with little or no awareness of how they should be altering their speech when addressing people of varying ages, social positions, etc.

    As this situation suggests, I think the solution in Europe is more than doing away with rules mandating the use of “vous” forms. I think it has more to do with providing the missionaries with more and better cultural education. If you just expect them to pick these things up on the fly, many will fail to do so within the two short years of a mission.

  22. In Russia, in the early ’90’s, we used informal and formal you as culturally appropriate. I wasn’t ever aware of this rule and am somewhat surprised by it. However, my Mission President, was a bit of a maverick, so…

  23. Ditto John C.’s #26, my experience in Russia in the early 90’s was the same (Browning and Chapple were my presidents, neither of whom seemed particularly maverick-ish, at least overtly!).

  24. Is there a particular reason why the missionaries are actually following this rule?

    In my mission in Japan, we would have noted the rule, and then spoke however we liked.

    What’s wrong with kids these days?

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