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LA Times infography

French : when to say "vous", when to say "tu"

By Etienne Bennequin

In France, choosing between “tu” and “vous” sets your relationship with your interlocutor according to many social codes that are often instinctive and sometimes unequal. This is one of the first steps when you meet someone: you have to decide before knowing the other's personality and how he/she feels about this.

Of course you may try to avoid to make a choice at all cost but it can never last long. You will have to consider constructing your sentences in such way that you don’t have to use pronouns, but you will quickly look clumsy, people will notice your awkwardness and think that you are an idiot. Also, if you are British and are not very comfortable with French, you can always say "tu", even if you’re speaking to several people. Your ignorance which will come with a nice accent will often be excused and sometimes be enjoyed, but you might also upset the strictest French – and there are many.

No, you would better learn how to use it. This chart from the Los Angeles Times will teach you the basics of how to address a person you have just met, using a set of easy questions to answer “yes” or “no” to. Nevertheless there some subtle things that have to be corrected. First of all, however old you both are, if you call your teacher “tu“ while he is calling you “vous“, he will just find you disrespectful and condescending. Plus, call your boss “tu” because he just upset you and you will never get a promotion. Finally and even if this chart says they are, those who are called in France the “soixante-huitards“ who demanded “government reform and free love“ and fought against the reactionary  patriarchal structure are not all tu-addicts. They can roughly be split into two categories, those who like to say “tu“ whenever they can, and those who see disrespect in an inappropriate “tu“. But it is quite easy to distinguish them : if the 60-year-old you are talking to a) smokes a reefer on Saturday nights or b) rides a bike to go to work or c) has got a Facebook page, then you may “tu“ him – Renaud, famous French singer, well known for his songs about social classes, gives a quite old-fashioned description of this group in his song Les Bobos.

Case n°1: Your former boss adds you on Facebook. He wears flip-flops and RayBans on his profile picture and sends you a private messag: “Tu vas bien ?
What will your answer be? (The solutions are in the end of the article)

The tu/vous distinction is not only a language tool, it is a social dance whose rules change throughout the song. The leader can change, there can also be no leader anymore, briefly or permanently. And the music ends as soon as the two dancers call each other “tu“. I will explain. When you meet someone new, there are two possibilities. Either you speak equal to equal, if this person is the friend of a friend for instance. As long as the relationship stays equal, the switch from “vous“ to “tu“ will be operated naturally by an individual or mutual initiative : there is no leader. Or one of you may have a dominant position on the other in an agreed hierarchy – which could be your firm, school, age, or any other hierarchy in effect in the social background of your meeting. This person will be the leader as long as his position remains dominant and will decide himself how each one of you shall call the other. He is the one who will legitimately say “On peut se tutoyer” and end the dance.

Case n°2: After three years of common life, your wife’s father finally says that you could call each other “tu”.
What do you say?

If one could likely think that the “vous“, especially when it is used in only one way, is a tool for the class distinction operated by a patriarchal power, it would be a mistake to say that calling someone “tu“ is rude whereas “vous“ is a refusal of friendship. These are mainly social codes: two people with the same relation will address each other differently depending on the social background. Here is an easy example : a restaurant manager will say “vous“ to a young person who is ordering a meal, but the same young person coming in and applying for a job will be called “tu“ almost any time. The rules on the Internet are different as well, and users often use “tu” while they would use “vous“ if they meet physically. It isn’t rude due to the anonymity but social codes are different on the Internet. In fact, the tu/vous distinction actually dictates a relationship between two people but rather in a particular environment than in absolute terms. Having to say “vous“ to a teacher who calls you “tu“ does not mean that you owe him respect and he doesn’t owe you, it simply means that in the context of the classroom he is the one who gives the knowledge and is in this way in a dominant position.

Case n°3: Back to school: your mother is your new teacher.
How do you address her?

So the tu/vous distinction that English-speakers are so curious about is not that different from another distinction which exists in French as well as in English: calling someone by their first name or their surname. Thus the teacher, who can be French or English, is called by his or her title – Mrs or Mme, Mr or M., Miss or … Mme too, “mademoiselle“ is no longer recognized by the French administration – and his or her surname, while he or she calls the students by their first name, even with a “vous“. There may exist more subtle rules in the tu/vous distinction, but the spirit stays the same: social codes define the way you talk to another person.

  • T’es bien gentil mon jeune ami, but when do I have to say “vous”?

I couldn't offer you a chart containing every case and the behaviour that fits best, because it would be too long and too inaccurate. But I can give you three rules which are almost always true.

  • When you are with friends or family, you can call everyone “tu“, unless they all use “vous“.
  • When you are at work, study the atmosphere. Observe who is at your hierarchical level and address everyone as they do – carefully. When you feel more comfortable in their company and with the tu/vous distinction, you will be able to take your decision.
  • In the other cases, address as “vous“ anyone you don’t know, even those who work for you – in a restaurant for example. You can call the children “tu“, unless of course the kid is “a prince or something like that“.
  • Solutions to the cases :
  • Salut vieille branche ! Ca va et toi ?“ – Notice that the “vieille branche“ – somethink like “buddy“ in English – is not necessary if you are not sure of what you are doing.
  • Smile and call him “tu“. The answer “I am flattered but no. We can still be friends if you want“ is absolutely not an option.
  • Change your class, leave the school, run away from the country. This situation is the worst in the whole world and has no solution.


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