French social customs 7: tu or vous?

Another knotty problem in my French social customs series [for the others, see Customs in Topics in the right-hand sidebar].

In English, we use you for both the 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural.  The old thou form of the 2nd person singular died out long ago in everyday speech.  In French, of course, it’s different.  Tu is the 2nd person singular, vous is the 2nd person plural.  But…vous is also used to address people you don’t know well or people to whom you owe respect. 

Well into the 20th century in rural society, children addressed their parents as vous but were tutoied in return.  It’s said that Charles de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne always addressed each other as vous, even in private.  That must have made for some stilted pillow talk.  Tu was sometimes used as a means of exerting authority.  In Simenon’s Maigret novels, for example, Commissaire Maigret tutoies the villains and most of his subordinates.    

At what point do you cross the vous-tu line? Even after 13 years here, there are some situations in which we are flummoxed. 

French society is becoming more casual, but amongst our friends and acquaintances, there is a bewildering range of different practices. We tutoie most of our friends but there are a few people we’ve known for years with whom we’ll always be vous.  In one particularly bizarre situation, we say tu to the wife but vous to the husband, who is of the old school.  My yoga teacher tutoies everyone straight off but after 11 years, some members of my other exercise class are only just starting to tutoie me.  We’ve known our neighbours’ granddaughter since she was seven, but should we address her as vous now that she’s 20? I have got myself so tied up in knots about this issue that I have even been known to address the cat as vous

So there are few hard and fast rules and it depends on the people you happen to be with – how old they are, where they were brought up, how well-travelled they are, etc.  The only way to approach this is to address everyone (except small children and animals) as vous until they propose otherwise or start addressing you as tu, which is a signal that you can do it too.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved.

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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7 Responses to French social customs 7: tu or vous?

  1. phildange says:

    When I visited Quebec, I thought : it’s like if a god had only kept the 20% French I prefer and set them here.
    It’s not at all like the Yanks, who are very different from Enlish . In Quebec they are more active and modern than the French ( US influence, cold weather ? ), but I felt like with French, at least the French I feel good with . The shopkeepers were warmful and everybody tutoie everybody . In the countryside,yet, I found peasants that made me think I came 300 years back . I didn’t understand a single word, and there was a funny feeling. I had the same in lost villages of Maine and Vermont, as if Salem witches’ time was not dead. Curious how the New World can seem older than ours sometimes.
    But coming back to Quebec it’s a very nice place to meet people, easier than in France, they talk to you and invite you quickly, and you can meet sort of French people . It was a rest for my mind, after two months among the “inculte” children who are called American.

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  2. phildange says:

    You know, tu is also an instrument to promote the kind of relationship you like. All the people having participated to the “hippie” atmosphere, or anything in art, take it easy when you use tu . It’s a good way to recognize each other. Also I never saw anybody tutoyant un jeune receiving any trouble back. It’s up to you to appreciate the limit of “jeune”. Personally I like that; it’s away of teaching . If you ever travelled to Quebec you found tu is universal there . I think this tu/vous story is never a problem, and often an enjoyable toy.
    By the way I live in SW too, but closer to the Atlantic, and I feel very good in the whole Midi-Pyrénées .

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    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, I’ve noticed that people working in the arts, young people, etc have no problem with tutoying. Also, people who have worked in a big city away from their rural roots, for example, are much easier about it than those who have stayed. I wouldn’t dare tutoie our farmer neighbours (although if I did by mistake they’d probably be OK about it). I’m interested to hear about how it is in Quebec. I wonder if Quebecois French and metropolitaine French are as different as American English and British English now are?

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  3. phildange says:

    Instead of taking the tu/vous as a problem, I like using it as an instrument . If you’re not sure, always say vous . But changing from vous to tu is a pleasure, and in many cases it’s a help to test and to ensure your relationship .

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    • nessafrance says:

      Hello, thank you for your comment and for your very helpful advice. I agree with everything you say. I always say vous if unsure, but I’m delighted if French people indicate that it’s OK to change to tu with them. As you say, it’s a way of testing your relationship. However, it remains a difficult cultural difference between French and English and one where it is always advisable to tread carefully!

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  4. Lore says:

    Your cat will start to think she’s queen of the house, but I suspect cats do that even without being addressed as vous :).
    Choosing between “tu” and “vous” can indeed be tricky.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Hi again – you have been busy! I do enjoy reading people’s comments on my blog. Yes, cats do tend to take over and probably think it’s natural to be addressed as ‘vous’! Even after 13 years I still find myself addressing people as ‘tu’ and then apologising profusely when I realise. Most people don’t mind too much, though. They are just happy that we make the effort to speak French.

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