When you’re talking French in France, many Brits are confused which version of ‘you’ to use – the polite ‘vous’ or the more familiar ‘tu’ – it’s a socio-political minefield!
On paper, the rules appear steadfast. You should ‘vouvoyer’ (i.e. use vous with) your boss, wok colleagues, neighbours, people you’ve never met, anyone older than you by say, half a generation or more, teachers, doctors, local officials, etc. You should ‘tutoyer’ (ie use tu with) your friends and those of your partner, children and teenagers, close colleagues, people who ask you to tutoyer them and on social media.
But in practice, it’s easy to get flummoxed. Can you ever tutoyer your parents-in-law, for example? Or your neighbour’s son? In these situations, even the French differ radically. Some switch quickly from vous to tu while others adhere faithfully to the former.
“Unfortunately, there is no rule”, says Géraldine Lepére, who offers oline language lessons through www.commeunefrancaise.com. “Just like choosing whether to kiss or shake hands, French people can be just as clueless as you are when it comes to using tu or vous. So don’t freak out if you don’t know.”
Confused? That isn’t surprising as there are many factors at play in what socio-linguists call ‘the T-V distinction’. Switch to tu uninvited or too early in a relationship and many French people feel awkward or offended. Yet use vous for too long and you may sound stuffy, making your interlocutor feel old or even alienated. French society is more formal that that of Britain but the explosion of social media has now made ‘tutoiement’ much more popular, especially among the young. If you aren’t really sure, it’s best to stick with vous until a French person invites you to switch (‘On se tutoie?). As Lepére says “You’re a foreigner so people will be more forgiving if you use tu instead of vous.”
As Brits, it’s our problem, really, as we only have one second-person pronoun – ‘thou’ died out in the 17th century. So how on Earth are we supposed to judge the difference? Using tu is more than being on first-name-terms – in some situations it’s almost the equivalent of calling someone ‘mate’ or ‘love’, or ‘dude’.
There are even geographical differences, as it’s more common to tutoyer when first meeting someone in the South of France than in the North, where many would consider its spontaneous use a verbal attack.
To make things even more confusing, believe it or not, many French citizens tutoyer when addressing God!
Originally published in issue 118 of the FrenchEntrée magazine.