Vous or Tu?

Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Tu and vous – which ‘you’ two yous?

Did you know that English is now one of the only languages without an equivalent to the “tu-vous” distinction in French? In fact, the nearest English equivalent is ‘thou’ which we don’t hear too often in everyday conversation!

OoopsIt’s easy to come across as rude if you don’t know the basic ‘formules de politesse’ (courtesy phrases) such as ‘merci’, ‘s’il vous plaît’…

However, getting your ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ in a twist can actually be even worse as far as some people are concerned.

If you’re worried about putting your ‘pied dans le plat’, here are a few basic rules, bearing in mind that they depend very much on age, class, circumstances, and the individual.

First the easy bit
‘Vous’ is the plural of ‘tu’, and should be used when talking to more than one person, no matter what their age, rank or class.

Now the rest!
Tu demonstrates a certain closeness and informality.

Use tu …
☞ to friends and colleagues
☞ to your own family & relatives (but not
necessarily to your in-laws!)
☞ to children or people younger than you
☞ to your dog, cat hamster or rabbit (but maybe use VOUS to a lion or a crocodile just to be on
the safe side!
☞ Some people might also use ‘tu’ to be deliberately disrespectful, ‘breaking’ the social barrier where ‘vous’ would otherwise be expected.

Vous is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance or formality

Use vous ………..
☞ to people you have never met before
☞ to people who are older than you
☞ to an authority figure (teacher, policeman…)
☞ to your boss, unless otherwise agreed.
☞ to anyone to whom you wish to show respect

The moment when two people move from “vous” to ‘tu’ can actually be quite a milestone in their relationship – the moment when a professional relationship changes to friendship for example.

TIP If you don’t know somebody well enough to call them by their first name, always ‘vous’ them to be on the safe side.

Some exceptions to the ‘rules’
☞ In some aristocratic circles, children are encouraged to ‘vous’ their parents, but this is becoming more and more old-fashioned.
☞ Sons and daughters-in-law will often use ‘vous’ to their in laws, even if they like each other and get on well.
☞ Neighbours who don’t socialise together may well ‘vous’ each other all their lives!

We asked a few French folk how they felt about the tu/vous division

Fred, Perpignan
« C’est une forme de politesse. Ca permet de garder des barrières, de montrer du respect ou de la distance. J’ai du mal à tutoyer quelqu’un que je ne connais pas bien. J’ai plus de facilité à tutoyer quelqu’un de plus jeune. »

Nadia, Paris 
Au boulot, les gens se tutoient pour se montrer qu’on est ‘tous une bande de potes’ Si on se vouvoie, ca veut peut être dire qu’on ne veut pas sympathiser. Ca peut me déranger si quelqu’un me tutoie de façon inappropriée. Les gens se tutoient plus facilement aujourd‘hui. »

VOCAB
Tutoyer/vouvoyer
to address somebody with tu/vous
Tu peux me tutoyer
you can address me as ‘tu’
On peut se tutoyer?
Can we use ‘tu’ to each other.
Je n’aime pas qu’on me tutoie
I don’t like being addressed as ‘tu’
Ca permet de..
it allows us to..
J’ai du mal à
I find it difficult to..
J’ai plus de facilité à
I find it easier to…
Au boulot
at work
tous une bande de potes
all mates together
sympathiser
to be friends (to get on with someone)
Ca peut me déranger
it can bother me

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