When do you tutoie someone?

Making the right choice between formal vous and casual tu is important to avoid social faux pas

Making the right choice between formal vous and casual tu is important to avoid social faux pas in France.

MAKING the right choice between formal vous and casual tu is important to avoid social faux pas in France.

Most people learnt that tu is used for friends and vous for more formal situations – and that holds true, but the rules have never been as fluid as they are today.

The year 1968, when society was shaken up with riots and strikes, is often cited as a turning point. Before then, tu was kept by almost everyone for their closest friends and family.

These days however, younger people move quickly, or immediately, to tu among themselves and even in some, more youthful, workplaces it is used across the board.

Tu derives from the Latin “you” for addressing a single person, while vous is for addressing a group. In modern French, however, vous is used either for a group or for being polite to one person.

According to grammar bible Le Bon Usage, this “polite vous” caught on from fashions at the royal court in the 17th century.

Eighteenth-century writer Voltaire refers to the custom in Lettres Philosophiques – written in London, where he had fled after getting into trouble for insulting an aristocrat. He admired the simple, direct habits of the egalitarian Quakers who addressed everyone as “thou” – the English equivalent of tu in those days – and who thought it pretentious to insist on people addressing you “as though there were more than one of you.”

Under the ancien régime, aristocrats addressed the lower classes as tu but each other as vous.

The 1789 revolutionaries abolished vous, with one commenting on the “feudal, servile” habit by which a commoner addressed an aristocrat as vous and was spoken to as tu.

Unequal use may still cause discomfort today, though in some circumstances, where there is a big difference in age or seniority, it can feel natural. Vous came back under Napoleon.

These days a few posh couples still use vous for each other – like former president Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, who said they started doing it while courting because their parents did.

Some traditional Catholic families also insist on children calling parents vous as a mark of respect, and to show they are not their children’s mates, though many French people say it feels too stiff to them.

Usually, the youngest French children are not expected to master vous, and tu is typical in maternelle (up to age five).

They are then often encouraged to use vous to teachers, who, in turn, may say tu or, if they are traditional, return a vous. Former Education Minister Xavier Darcos said in 2007 using vous in school was important to foster respect.

In business, vouvoiement is traditional, especially to a boss, though it depends on the firm’s culture.

Wine expert and presenter Alain Marty says he insists on tu at the wine appreciation dinners he runs for businesspeople, as it makes for a friendly atmosphere.

Le tutoiement (saying tu) is de rigueur in showbusiness and is also how Catholics address God. This dates from 1960s and is seen as emphasising the closeness between God and mankind - though the Ave Maria is still Je vous salue, Marie.

The trend is for more and more tutoiement. Some adverts and presenters address viewers as tu, though some people find it too casual. TV journalist Karl Zéro even insists on it in political interviews.

According to women’s magazine Version Fémina, who asked for opinions, the rules are no longer always clear even to the French, with one person telling them he avoids “you” forms and finds other ways of phrasing things so as to avoid offense. Choosing vous might be seen as stuffy, while tu may be chummy or impolite. A 22-year-old said she feels torn between speaking respectfully to some of her parents’ friends while not making them feel past-it by using vous. One woman said she felt left out when young colleagues used tu to each other, but not to her.

For learners, the safest bet is still to go for vous at first and let the other person take the initiative – or, if it feels too formal, ask: “ça va si on se tutoie?” (is it OK if we use tu?).

However, this, too, entails risk as a Socialist Party supporter once found when he asked future French president François Mitterrand – then just elected head of the Socialist Party – “On se tutoie?”
Mitterrand’s response: “Comme vous voulez.”

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