When Should You Use Tu or Vous?

Salers Cow

Tu? Definitely.

Teysseroles 2014 - singers

Vous? Well, it depends.

Today, I revisit a topic that I covered when I first started this blog nearly eight years ago. It’s an aspect of French society and culture that perplexes Brits no end and whatever you do, there’s a fair chance that it’s wrong. Yes, the thorny issue of when to use “tu” or “vous”. A report this week on the TF1 news revealed that even the French are finding this less than simple these days and it’s changing fast.

Let’s start with the basics. Grammatically, tu is the 2nd person singular, while vous is the 2nd person plural. We don’t have this in English, at least not any more, since the old “thou” form of the 2nd person singular disappeared a long time ago. However, once you’ve grasped this, it’s all plain sailing, isn’t it?

Traditional usage of vous

Well, not exactly. In French, vous is used not only to address more than one person, but also to address someone you don’t know well or as a mark of respect. Until comparatively recently, children addressed their parents as vous. I’ve read this in countless novels about rural life. The documentary we saw recently, Farrebique, shot in the 1940s, showed grown-up men addressing their father as vous, while their father called them tu in return.

Addressing your belle-mère (mother-in-law) as vous was de rigueur. Our friend Jean knew his mother-in-law for more than 50 years, but still called her vous. We are told that Charles de Gaulle and his wife, popularly known as Tante Yvonne, called each other vous, at least in public.

Traditional usage of tu

Tu, on the other hand, was traditionally used with close friends and relatives, children and animals. It was also used as the opposite of a mark of respect. Maigret often tutoied the villains in the Simenon books. President Nicolas Sarkozy said to an objector during a walkabout, “Casse-toi, pauvre con,” which can be translated as “P*** off, you sad so-and-so.” Hmm. I think he and Donald Trump might have got on rather well.

Changes are afoot

However, things have been changing over the past few decades, although not everyone has been prepared to countenance it. A fellow Socialist said to François Mitterrand in the 1970s, “On est du même parti, on peut se tutoyer.” (We belong to the same party, so we can call each other tu). Mitterrand, who was always a bit de haut en bas replied, “Si vous voulez.”

The TFI report showed primary school children addressing their teacher as tu, which I believe would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. Not all of the teachers in that school were happy with it, though. In the workplace, which has traditionally been pretty hierarchical in France, it was customary to call your boss vous. But that is also breaking down rapidly, we learned from the report.

And if you’re a foreigner…

The problem for us foreigners is that, as you can see from some of the examples above, not everyone subscribes to the same notions. Older people in particular tend to stick to the traditional forms of address. We will never be anything but vous and monsieur with our elderly neighbour. People we have known for 20 years still call us as individuals vous. Equally, there are some people who tutoie us straight off. Young people regularly use the familiar tu. It gets very confusing in meetings of an association, for example, when you are tu with some people and vous with others.

An issue that exercises me in particular is: when does a teenager turn into vous? Our neighbour’s granddaughter, whom we have known for 20 years, is now 28 with two children. I used to call her tu. What should I call her now? I go through gymnastics trying to devise phrases in which I don’t have to address her as anything. Probably, she wouldn’t mind if I continued to tutoie her, but you never know.

The only way to remain on safe ground is to call children and animals tu and everyone else vous. I always wait to be invited to tutoie someone or until I receive tacit permission when they tutoie me.

Congrats to the #AllAboutFrance linky, which is now three years old. There, you’ll find interesting posts about all aspects of French life and culture, mostly written by ex-pats. This post is taking part in the March 2018 linky. Just click the link.

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You might also like:

French Telephone Etiquette
French Social Customs: Monsieur, Madame or First Names?
How to Drive Like the French

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About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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49 Responses to When Should You Use Tu or Vous?

  1. Ugh it’s so tricky for us Anglos and after 20 years in France I still get it wrong, but I usually laugh it off saying I’m English and find that’s accepted as an excuse (to be hopeless!) I have one really big issue with vous/tu and that’s that I’m expected to use vous to my MIL while she tus me and my kids tu her. I know it’s a way for her to show I’m not fully accepted in the family as far as she’s concerned which is pleasant after 23 years of marriage (not!) (And it certainly doesn’t make me warm to her). Thanks for trying to clarify a tricky problem! And thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I generally follow the advice you give in your past paragraph but I do wonder if sometimes people are waiting for “me” to say they can tutoie me. Older son got into trouble when he moved to collège and said tu to a teacher – it was allowed in primaire but not secondaire! #AllABoutFrance

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    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, others have indicated that it can be interpreted as a bit stand-offish if one continues to use vous. However, I stand by the principle that I should wait to be invited to tutoie or that it should at least be clear that the other person is habitually tutoing me.

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  3. It is such a nightmare! I never know – I use vous and get told off and then with my elderly neighbour, who is a bit like a French mum to me and a French Mamie to Ed, I sometimes slip in a tu, but she always uses vous….. eek, help! #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      In some ways elderly people are the easiest, because it can never be wrong to address them as vous. It becomes more difficult when you have to address one half of a couple as tu and the other as vous. One friend’s husband is an absolute stickler for it. I don’t think I have ever tutoied him by mistake, but it’s been a close run thing!

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  4. Richard says:

    Your advice — just “vous” until you’re invited to do otherwise — is good! When I first moved to France, I had a colleague at work — an older, somewhat formal gentleman — who changed the address every time I encountered him. If he switched to “tu” on Monday, I’d return it on Tuesday only to have him pull the Mitterand stunt and switch back to “vous”. Since I was just learning the language, it drove me crazy trying to figure out our relationship. (I even asked him, on one of the “tu/toi” days, if we could continue doing that, and he said ‘yes’ — then used “vous” the next time I saw him!) In any case, as you say, the trend is definitely toward the more informal in most of the business settings I’ve experienced over the last 2 years. Thanks for sharing this on #AllAboutFrance !

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It sounds as if your colleague was pulling your leg, although I should have thought the joke would pall after a while! Things are getting more informal, except among older people where we live.

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  5. This subject is a daily battle for me. I’m anglophone, so there’s that, and I’m also from Québec, where people use vous quite sparingly. I often conjugate both tu and vous in the same sentence! Maybe one day I’ll get it…maybe… My British man addresses me in vous in public just because he also has trouble with the tu and vous conjugation. This makes me feel like people think I beat him up at home! ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s all very difficult for us Anglophones. I have been known to address the cat as “vous” in front of French people. Sometimes the best thing to do is just to laugh it off. I have never come across someone who was offended because I used the wrong one – especially if I apologise.

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  6. annette @afrenchcollection says:

    Language changes with time and I guess the use of ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ is one example. Less formality, particularly by younger people, often drives change also. #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I do think there must be regional “norms, rules, variations” what have you. Here on the Aude/Ariege borders I have found a very relaxed attitude to what is a thorny subject for Brits. I “vous-ed” everyone when I first arrived but as soon as I was on first name terms with neighbours and tradespeople who worked on the renovation with me it was “tu” all the way at their request. Younger people expect and accept “tu”. Now I find I only use “vous” to people I don’t know at all, to people in shops (except the local epicerie) and offices and to people whom I wish to distinguish from my friends/neighbours like our local Maire who is a prat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m sorry, I overlooked your comment. I’ve been working on my latest novel and I’m living in another world at the moment. I’m sure there are regional variations in the use of tu/vous, although I wouldn’t like to try to categorise them. I suspect there are also social and generational factors at play as well. Younger people are much readier to us tu. That’s how languages change, I guess.

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  8. Kiki says:

    I speak here strictly from own experience and not from a ‘correct or PC’ use.
    When I was much younger, the ‘tutoyer’ in Switzerland began for me when one kid got confirmed and after the confirmation I went over to him and said. As from now on you can ‘duzen’ me (tutoyer). He was liking this but I never knew how much. Years later he told me that I was the first ‘adult’ who offered him this sign of ‘equality’ and that he would never forget that.
    At work it depended largely on the kind of company and relationship whether we used the informal or formal way. The biggest change was certainly when the intern. company I worked for and who was at that time in German hands got sold to Americans. All of a sudden wir all were adressed strictly by our first names and the big wigs were on Christian name basis too. This didn’t however, contrary to what might have been expected, lead to a lack of human respect and I liked this.
    Now that I live for the longest tme in France, things are different again. Yes, I have many, many ppl I ‘vousvoie’ in discussion but none of them are addressed by the nom de famille, they are e.g. Bonjour Henry, comment allez-vous? Others are like bros and sis after the first 30 seconds. It all depends. Me often being the older I feel it’s up to me to tell the younger person that she/he is allowed to call me ‘toi/tu’. When in doubt, always vousvoie! Always!
    I often remark on the fact that, since Hero Husband has a ‘ministry’ in church, he is a person of high respect. So, they tutoie me w/o the slightest hesitation but always refer to my husband as ‘minor royalty’ which is often awkward because he then also vousvoies them until the next sentence when he falls back in the tutoiage…. As you say: A mine-field. and YES I too know modern families where the belle-mère or beau-père is addressed as Vous…. whereas I always called my in-laws by their Christian name.
    Yes, in shops I would sometimes prefer to speak to Mrs or Mr XYZ and not to Didier or Marthe, but there you go. Be polite in any case, it pays.
    (And to confirm that nothing is written in stone, my ex, a very, very long time ago, said to a younger man who worked with him: No, you won’t call me by my name, we haven’t looked after pigs together….. I was mortified and later apologized for my then husband to this younger man, but of course if HE saw it like that who was I to argue.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure that customs differ from place to place. People in France are more relaxed about using first names now, even if you still vousvoie each other. There are some exceptions and one or two people who persist in calling me Madame after 20 years of acquaintance. Quite so: nothing is written in stone.

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  9. CG says:

    Right at the start of my French conversation class here in Australia the tutor announced that we should all tutoie one another. I have found that difficult as I when I originally learned French at school, it was made very clear that one should tutoie only children and animals and members of one’s own family. And when I travel in France nowadays as a tourist, I’m never in a situation when it is appropriate to use anything but ‘vous’. As a newcomer in that class, I didn’t know or feel at all pally with any of the other students. So it is still hard work for me, as I have to keep correcting tu-forms to vous-forms and apologizing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • CG says:

      I intended to mean vous-forms to tu-forms in that last sentence. You can tell how confused I am

      Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Don’t worry, I clocked what you meant. I don’t mind if, in a group, for example, it’s decided that everyone should tutoie each other. It makes it easier if it’s consistent. What I find more difficult is when you know some people as tu and others as vous at a dinner or meeting, and then I really get tied up in knots! On holiday, of course, you would only be meeting new people, so calling everyone vous is not a problem.

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  10. katyjohnson1 says:

    I know just what you mean – I have the same quandary in Italy between tu and Lei. It’s quite hard to remember sometimes if someone’s told you to use the other form. I worry that if they’ve already told me to use tu but I forget and go back to Lei they’ll take it as a snub!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      The whole thing is a minefield and we find it even more so because we simply don’t have the same distinction in English. Sometimes, perhaps, we get too hung up about it. It rather depends on who you are dealing with, I think.

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  11. I concur. I use the vous form with all except animals, children and the obviously teenaged until invited otherwise.

    Whilst our village is friendly, it is La France Profonde and people are quite formal in certain areas.
    This leads to a quandary. My elderly neighbour sent us a NY card with her first name on it. We were calling her Mme X.

    Do we now use her first name ??

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Our village, like many in rural France, has a fairly elderly demographic and some of the people are traditional in outlook and habit. I wouldn’t dare to pronounce on what you should call Mme X now that she has signed herself with her first name. Does she use your first names? You could perhaps suggest that she does, which then gives her an opening to suggest the same for her.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Kiki says:

      I would continue to vousvoier your neighbour BUT call her by her first name. I do that with all my elderly and more formal neighbours and it works beautifully. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask what she’d like…. She will tell you, and you’ll all be the happier for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Helen Pollard says:

    Crikey, I hoped I had the basics of this … I could do without it all changing! Old dogs, new tricks and all that 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It would be okay if change were uniform, but it isn’t. Some people stick to the Old School rules, but others don’t, so navigating between the two can be a bit hairy sometimes. I always err on the side of caution, i.e. use vous until permitted otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Osyth says:

    Oh that Salers … what a beauty she is! I loved this piece, laughing loudly at old Mitterand. It is a minefield. I accidentally called my much younger neighbour Tu before Christmas and she looked at me with utter contempt. I corrected myself as smoothly as I could but I stung for days. She is the wife of the chief of the Gendarmerie for Isère and oddly he wouldn’t give a fig but she does. She is local, he from Brittany – this may have a relevance since we are closely. Linked to Lyon and the Lyonnaise are famously very rigidly French old school. In Cantal it was the opposite, but the people there are equally famously easy-going …. even the Maire is on Tutoie terms with us these days. Hey ho. I doubt I’ll ever stop putting my foot in it but my default is to plead Spanish Cow which leads us neatly back to that Salers (almost)

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Mitterrand’s remark was very clever and rather typical of him. I think custom and practice probably vary between different parts of France and, dare I say it, different classes. I would imagine that the Cantal is perhaps more egalitarian than the Lyonnais. I would be interested to know about other parts of France. People around here are fairly easy-going about it and don’t seem to mind too much if I address them as “tu” when it should be “vous”. I always apologise profusely, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        I’m sure that class plays a huge role. In Champs-sur-Tarentaine where we lived originally, the house next door was owned by an elderly, rather up-market Parisien couple as a maison secondaire … I actually believe I would have been turned to stone if I’d got it wrong …. apologies are think are the best route should one get it wrong, and skulking for quite a while as I did seemed the best back-up!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I think I can feel a short story coming on here, with your up-market Parisian couple and the etiquette minefield! French people here are pretty indulgent, actually. They think we are slightly eccentric, but that means they make allowances when we do something wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        I feel the bubbling it is true …. eccentric is such a good disguise – my father-in-law taught me that one sound and true!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Yes, he certainly fitted that description! In a nice way, though.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. The SF says:

    I think that was is happening in France now is what happened in Sweden during my life time. When I was a boy people used the Swedish “vous” except for family members and children. I never said “tu” to a teacher. But now everybody say “tu”. If I phone the managing director of a potential customer, who I have never met, we “tutoi” each other immediately. As a matter of fact the use is now reversed. If some driver bumps my car I get out and “vouvoi” him or her immediately.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      An interesting reflection on Swedish society, which, as we know, is rather more casual than French society. I think, though, that the vousvoi-ing in Sweden in the situation that you refer to creates a distance and a coolness that is not so far from the use of “vous” in French sometimes.

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  15. You have to play it by ear, literally. With grown up people (you can address animals however you like) you always vouvoie until one or the other decides to tutoie. It usually happens that one of the parties in the conversation will accidentally on purpose tutoie, apologise profusely, at which point you can either seize the opportunity and change to tutoiement, or you can do a Mitterand. You have to listen out though, and if you’re like my husband, you’d probably miss it. There’s also the problem of whether being on tu terms is just an excuse for the abusive to pull a fast one on the grounds that ‘we’re friends’. It happens. I won’t name names…

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I have been known to address the cat as “vous” in front of French people, because I was in such a lather about it all. That’s some time ago, though. Recently, a middle-aged couple tutoied me immediately, which I found a bit strange, having been used to situations as you describe them. I am still very careful, but I have developed an ear for these niceties of etiquette.

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      • I know that French people have trouble with it too, so I tend not to get too worked up about it. I just know that although I’ve lived here all my adult life, all my working life and had all my children here, I’ll still be a foreigner.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Yes, we will never be more than permanent visitors in someone else’s country. It is interesting to see how things change, though, as regards social customs. And they have in our 20 years here.

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      • You maybe notice it more than I have if you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years. We lived in Paris for fourteen years, the moved a small town in the north, then had ten years in Bordeaux, and we’re in the countryside now, getting to know the neighbours. Each place has been different sociologically and we’ve had to adapt to different ways of doing things each time. Society generally has got less deferential and much more cosmopolitan, town centres have emptied and many of the things we used to think of as quintessentially French have gone.

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  16. I broadly agree with you Vanessa. My son-in-law always says vous to me, though I tutoie him. The French aristocracy still vousvoie each other and often their children. I asked an aristocrat about this once, his son had been fooling about at table like any perfectly normal 9 year old, but when asking if he could leave the table early, said vous to his parents and they said vous to him. I was told: we only tutoie dogs and servants! And I think (following on from your remark about Mitterand) that it is a perfectly wonderful way of putting someone in their place, or, on the contrary, of indicating that intimacy would be welcome. The change from vous to tu can be momentous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m never likely to be invited by a French aristocrat, but I can believe that they might still occupy a previous era where etiquette is concerned.

      I think Mitterrand’s remark was very clever. He was known, though, as the last monarch. I would be interested to know whom he allowed to tutoie him. Once one has made the transition to “tu” with someone, it is a bit like being allowed into the inner circle – and very gratifying.

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  17. An absolute minefield for a foreigner! It has become apparent to me that some french see our use of ‘vous’ as reinforcing our reputation (with some french people) as being ‘froid’. I use tu blithely with my french friends at gym, rock etc and have to stop myself with elderly villagers and professional workers eg plumber, bank, etc. After 27 years, 13 of them living here full-time, it doesn’t get any easier! 🙂

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s interesting that in your experience the French might see us as cold for using “vous”. I haven’t come across that myself, but I can see that sometimes, in falling over backwards to be correct, I might have offended by being over-formal.

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  18. It is a maze the “vous & tu” and when you should use it in France! The Italians began to get rid of all that in the 90s, but it was even more complicated there because the very old people would ask me how we were getting along using “loro” (they) and I would wonder who on earth they were talking about?! I find the French much more formal in this day and age, compared to Italy

    I think the correct way is to remember that in English you would/should refer respectfully to an older person, or a business person (for example) by their surname and not jump into calling them by their Christian name which seems too familiar; so in that sense I can keep to “vous” quite happily. Although I was a bit shocked to see that the last time I went into a UK post office that the people behind the counter wear their Christian name on a badge … I find this awkward, because if I want to complain I don’t want to say, ” Now look here Derek! …” I ‘d rather say Mr Bloggs.

    We were also amazed by an elderly French couple, living in Italy referring to each as “vous” even though they were the merriest, most fun older people we knew. Like you, I stick to “vous” until the person asks me to drop that and use “tu”

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      In Sweden, as my husband points out in another comment, they dropped the “tu” and “vous” forms some years ago. But my late mother-in-law was still a bit surprised when people addressed her with the Swedish “tu” equivalent.

      I have noticed that it has become even more casual in the UK. I remember when I recruited people about 25 years ago, I found it inappropriate that they wrote to me as “Dear Vanessa”, but I suppose that is the norm these days. I’ve been out of the UK for 20 years and I daresay I would notice the change.

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