French conversation is a delicate dance.
Just about every sentence you form takes into account formality, respect and familiarity.
In other words, you’re constantly making that choice between vous and tu (the formal and informal “you,” respectively).
Get it wrong and you’ll sound out of place, awkward and possibly even insulting!
Still, there’s no need to panic.
Yes, the vous vs. tu question can seem like a horrible language feature to English speakers, who don’t have to make such distinctions as clear-cut.
But if it makes you feel better, this subject can be just as vexing for native French speakers.
Determining whether you should speak formally or informally in borderline situations can be a big source of social stress.
However, there’s a way to see the glass as half-full, and understanding this is the first step to getting comfortable with this linguistic phenomenon…
Vous and tu help us define relationships
That’s right, we can think of vous vs. tu as a useful tool. After all, it indicates your desired type of relationship with someone, as in the following exchange from the brilliant farce “Le Dindon” (“The Turkey”) by Georges Feydeau. Here, Pinchard has been making inappropriate advances (à la Pepé le Pew) on the chambermaid. He trips her up a bit by using tu:
Pinchard: Comment t’appelles-tu ? (What is your name?)
Clara: Eh bien ! et toi ? (Well, I never! And you?) […]
Pinchard: Ah ! Elle me tutoie ! (Oh! She’s using tu with me!) […]
Clara: Tiens ! Est-ce que je vous ai permis de me tutoyer ? (Well! Did I say you could use tu with me?)
Notice how Clara switches back to vous in the last sentence? She’s using this lovely, vexing feature of French to demarcate the relationship she wishes to have with Pinchard. Pinchard, on the other hand, uses the same feature to extract the meaning that he wants to hear with Ah ! Elle me tutoie ! (This line gets a laugh.)
The pronouns and possessive adjectives that indicate formality
So we’ve just met vous and tu, our French second-person subject pronouns. Note that this distinction only exists in the singular; if you’re addressing more than one person you’ll always use vous.
Vous is also the formal object pronoun, as in the above je vous ai permis… (literally, “I permitted you”). Tu becomes te (or t’ before a vowel or mute h) when it’s an object. So je t’ai permis would be the informal way to say the same thing.
The second-person possessive adjectives also have formal and informal versions. Tu becomes ton, ta, tes (“your” in informal masculine, feminine and plural forms respectively) and vous becomes votre, vos (“your” in formal masculine/feminine, plural). For example, Clara then addresses Pinchard’s wife:
Clara: Voulez-vous faire taire Monsieur votre mari ! (Would you make your husband shut up?!)
When to use the informal register
Here’s who you’ll address with tu and its variants:
- Children and animals: This rule’s not complicated. If you’re talking to French children or, for some reason, fauna, use tu.
- (Fellow) young people in informal situations: If you’re in school, or out at bars or parties, you’ll almost always use tu with your peers of the same age, even if you don’t know them personally. “Young” can have a larger sense in French than in English; for example, someone who’s 35 may still comfortably describe him/herself as a jeune homme/fille (young man/woman). This carries over to attitudes with vous and tu; thirty-somethings are likely to use tu between themselves if they feel that the situation is informal.
- Friends/family: People who you’re close to are always addressed with tu. Likewise for people who you meet in social situations. It’s a bit more complicated if you’ve just been introduced to a friend of a friend; you’ll have to judge whether the situation is more formal, but in many cases you’ll use tu.
- Work colleagues whom you know well: This strongly depends on the work environment. In arts organizations, startups and nonprofits—or in less-stiff environments (no dress code, for example)—you’re likely to use tu with your colleagues, especially those whom you see every day. But, even when colleagues are using tu among themselves, bosses often treat and are treated with vous, unless it’s a small and informal company where everyone knows each other. Many bosses think that it’s difficult to fulfill their management functions properly if they use tu.
When to use the formal register
Use vous for the following:
- With older people: If you’re a child/teen and you’re addressing an adult who’s not a family member, use vous until you’ve been invited to do otherwise. Adults will address you with tu, but life isn’t fair, as we say when we want to oppress the youth. As you hit your mid-twenties (it happened to me when I was living in Paris) you’ll start to hear those you thought were your fellow youth (damn 19-year-olds!) sometimes address you with vous. The horror!
- With people you don’t know: If you’re asking for directions or generally talking to someone whom you don’t know, vous is a safer bet.
- Bureaucratic situations: Always! I once was in an administrative rendez-vous with my very chatty French girlfriend, and she and the young official handling my paperwork got to talking about the best exercises for a nice butt, god-awful girl stuff, etc. The meeting lasted a good half-hour longer than necessary, and they had the most fun ever, but they used vous throughout. (It wasn’t as fun for me, but quite useful for getting certain paperwork errors overlooked.)
- In business: As mentioned above, you’ll use vous in more formal business environments. You’ll definitely use vous in meetings with those whom you don’t see every day. I once accompanied a (native French!) CEO to a meeting with our phone service supplier, and watched in dismay as he used tu with call center employees whom he had never met. I asked a colleague later if I had perhaps profoundly misunderstood the tu-vous distinction in French, and was told no, and that the CEO’s habit of forced informality made lots of people quite uncomfortable.
- (Most) customer relationships: You’ll almost always use vous. I once had a waiter in Montmartre who used tu with each of the people in our group, but he was drunk, serving us an ungodly amount of free liquor and grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth before we left. That particular customer-service style, however, was an exception, and I probably should have followed the example of Clara and insisted on vous.
What to do if you don’t know
“That all sounds great,” you might be saying, “But what about this grey area X?” The truth is, there probably isn’t one right answer for such questions. But here are some strategies:
- Listen for the other person’s register. Is she addressing you with vous or tu? I know that it’s difficult to catch, as you’re already expending so much effort on just getting the meaning of a sentence when you’re a language learner. But register (like noun gender) is something that we don’t naturally use in English and so we have to make an extra, conscious effort to listen for it.
- Ask: On se tutoie ? (Can we use tu?)
- When in doubt, you’re safer with vous.
Handle with care
This post offers guidelines, but always pay careful attention to how you’re addressed and how people around you address each other. Doing so will help you fine-tune your sense of when to use which register.
For more practice in this area, head over to FluentU, where you can listen to audio clips and watch videos of real dialogues between native French speakers.
With authentic French content, you can listen to the way natives address each other in various contexts, giving you a better idea of how to differentiate between the registers. Additionally, you can listen to the natural flow of French conversation to help you improve your verbal language skills.
To see what else FluentU has to offer, sign up for their trial, free of charge.
Literature, and especially films and plays (do read or see the rest of Feydeau’s masterwork!) are also useful, as they have lots of dialogue.
Your eventual goal should be to get to the point where the distinction feels not only natural, but actually useful for communicating subtext about the relationships you’re creating.
Mose Hayward lived in Paris for years, where he wrote and directed a short French comedy about whether violence is funny and the ideal size of a man’s nostrils. It makes impeccable use of the “vous vs. tu” distinction.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.