Unfamiliar with the familiar


I have to confess to being somewhat perturbed over the years with the Czech system of addressing people in either the unfamiliar or familiar. The system exists in several languages, though not English – essentially in Czech, one addresses people that one is not familiar with in the plural “zdravím vás” as opposed to “zdravím tě.” As a kid visiting Prague, I would constantly forget myself and refer to people that I didn’t know in the familiar. Then, someone would later say to me “you ‘tykat’ when you should have ‘vykat’” – that is the way the two forms of address are divided. A lot of times, the people that I would accidentally tykat would thankfully find it charming and simply excuse the faux pas.

Now that I am a little better at speaking Czech, I don’t make that mistake anymore, but I have become somewhat fascinated with this system. Apparently, the person of superior standing is the one that offers that the unfamiliar can be used. “Budeme si tykat” is what they say, as the beginnings of a friendship are apparently formed. But also, it is also women who always offer to the man – so even a cleaning woman would be in a position to offer the use of the unfamiliar to the Czech president, if she so chose – although a unwritten rule is that if the gap is too big like in this case, this would in fact be somewhat inappropriate for the cleaning lady to do. But there is more – the person does not have to accept, and not offering is also a statement. I once worked somewhere where half the staff tykat and half the staff vykat – “she has simply never offered me the tykat option” I heard from one person. It was a sign that that person wanted to keep their distance, which can be convenient at times.

Sometimes, someone will offer me the familiar, but I will forget that they have and start addressing them in the unfamiliar. Or other times, someone will offer me the familiar, but to be honest, I will find it a bit odd to be speaking to this person with whom I hold only a business-related relationship. Other times, someone in the professional sphere might annoy me, and I feel like withdrawing the familiar – which apparently is not done.

Yes, the unfamiliar and familiar is indeed a complicated system to get your head round.