Reader question: We have had apéro drinks with our retired-couple neighbours a few times now. We find it strange they still use the formal ‘vous’ with us instead of ‘tu’ as it sounds cold. We have been waiting for the invite to switch to ‘tu’ but it never comes. Is this usual?
The rules behind the use of ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ are often different in theory (ie what children are taught by parents and grandparents) in France to what is now used in practice.
The conditions triggering the use of either are complex, even for native French speakers, and the nuances can often be subtle.
In French, there are verbs to describe the action of referring to someone with ‘tu’ (se tutoyer), or ‘vous’ (se vouvoyer).
As a general rule ‘tu’ is restricted to people you know well, such as friends, family or close relatives - or children.
The use of ‘vous’ is more common in formal situations, for example, a one-on-one conversation with a person you do not know or with whom there is a big age difference.
This could be when you go to the bakery, ask directions on the street or speak with elderly people, with ‘vous’ being used to signify courtesy.
This is how it all works on paper but the reality is often different.
In our readers’ case, the neighbours are most probably using the ‘vous’ form because it is something they traditionally do to be polite. It is not necessarily linked to friendliness and how well they get on.
You can not gauge how they see you based on their use of ‘vous’.
Your neighbours will most probably never offer to switch to ‘tu’. The best you can do, if you want this, is ask them or start a friendly conversation about the topic.
But be aware that they may very well agree and use ‘tu’ once or twice before switching back to ‘vous.’
Some ‘vous/tu’ nuances
Some French people believe that using ‘tu’ with people they do not know puts everyone on an equal footing and ends a tradition they understand as being outdated or even hypocritical.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy is a prime example of this as he often used ‘tu’ with other leaders, such as former German chancellor Angela Merkel. Journalists sometimes linked his use of ‘tu’ to his open willingness to break traditional codes of the presidency.
Funnily enough though, Mr Sarkozy used ‘vous’ when speaking with his predecessor Jacques Chirac, even though the latter used ‘tu’ when addressing him, The Irish Times reports.
Mr Sarkozy may have kept ‘vous’ because of the age difference rather than out of respect, considering his support for Mr Chirac’s arch enemy Edouard Balladur during the 1995 presidential election campaign.
Another example is Bernadette Chirac, Mr Chirac’s wife, who is said to have used ‘vous’ when speaking to her husband because of a family tradition. She told Swiss TV RTS that Mr Chirac would use ‘tu’ when he wanted to annoy her.
Former socialist president François Mitterrand was asked by a fellow socialist if they could communicate using ‘tu’, to which he responded ‘si vous voulez’, a witty answer that granted approval while implying that he would rather not.
Religion has also gone the ‘tu’ way. Since 1964, French churchgoers speak to God using ‘tu’, a form leaned on by seventeenth-century poets and writers who used ‘tu’ when addressing the king and God, according to French newspaper Le Monde.
Tips from a French member of The Connexion team
My father told me that he started using ‘tu’ with his father-in-law after being invited to do so - my parents had been dating for nearly 15 years at that point. My father told me he would have never have used tu to my grand-father if the invite had not come.
My mother has never ‘tu-ed’ my paternal grandmother (her former mother-in-law), even though my grandmother speaks to her using ‘tu’. My grandmother never asked to be ‘tu-ed’ and my mother said she would never do so without permission.
My step-grandmother on my mother’s side has always used the ‘vous’ form when talking to my mother.
This can be explained because my grandmother is not related ‘by blood.’ For me, I consider her a grandmother since she has been around since I was seven.
My mother always refers to her using ‘vous’ and my grandmother has never asked to be ‘tu-ed.’
I use ‘tu’ with her and she ‘tu-es’ me.
My sister has never used ‘tu’ when speaking with her parents-in-law, both because of tradition and politeness, she said. My brother-in-law continues to use ‘vous’ with my mother ever since he started dating my sister 12 years ago, even though my mother has said he can use ‘tu.’
To the best of my recollection, I have only used ‘vous’ in a professional environment on one occasion - when on the phone with a journalist I had never met in person. They immediately asked to switch to ‘tu’ and I followed.
I use ‘vous’ when interviewing people.
At The Connexion, I have never asked myself if I would ‘tu’ my boss because we speak in English. To be honest, I do not know if I would ‘tu’ her if we were in a casual setting.
My mother has told me she used ‘vous’ in professional settings because that is how the relationships started out, based on a hierarchy. My mother said she just did it out of habit.
My father and I agreed we would never use ‘tu’ when speaking to a teacher even if the teacher in question was very young. My father uses ‘vous’ to speak with younger teachers, just like I would.
I ‘tu’ a lot.
I ‘tu-ed’ my brother-in-law’s parents the second time I met them and was told by my sister that his mother did not like it.
When I am in the bus or the train and want to hop off, I would use the ‘tu’ form to ask people around my age to step aside, saying ‘excuse-moi’ rather than ‘excusez-moi’, but I would use the ‘vous’ form when asking older people.
But the use of ‘vous’, however, can be employed by younger people as well.
If you have a question relating to French culture or society, let us know at email@example.com
Find help with navigating life in France with our new Reader Questions newsletter
Sign up for our pick of the week's questions from readers answered by the Connexion team – delivered to your inbox every Saturday.
See what other readers like you are asking including: How often is a rabies shot for dogs required for France-UK travel? Can foreign residents benefit from France's pension top-up benefit? and more.