Tu or vous: the shifting rules

Tu is informal, vous formal - but the choice can still be a minefield, especially as habits are evolving in France

TUTOIEMENT, the choice to address someone as tu as opposed to vous, is one of the minefields of French for foreigners and gives pause even to the French from time to time.

As a trend, French people are becoming more relaxed about moving to an informal tu than in previous decades.

Some attribute this to the rise of social media as with Twitter and Facebook groups the informal atmosphere lends itself to the widespread use of tu even among online ‘friends’ who have never met IRL (in real life).

Honorary avocat Georges Mouchtouris, a member of the Défense de la Langue Française in the Cher, said the trend is also partly due to participation in sports clubs, where members use tu.

It is also becoming more common at work, especially in firms that want to be seen as being more trendy and international. It has even developed in some professions, he said. “Among avocats we use ‘tu’ now, although that’s a very recent development.”

The rule, however, remains that, if you want to be respectful, opt for vous, and always do so with a new aquaintance who is significantly older than you – let them suggest tu if they want to. Among people of the same age, however, it is now normal to use tu if the relationship is friendly, Mr Mouchtouris said.

One delicate area is an adult talking to older teenagers, he said – if you call them vous they may find it respectful, or they may find it stuffy. You have to judge the situation. With young children it would not be natural to use vous.

Teachers also have this problem – with primary age children, tu from the teacher is normal, and it is normal for tots to use tu to the teacher as they have not yet learned the rules.

Afterwards, standard advice is for teachers to use vous though practice varies by personal preference and school ethos, some feeling it comes across as too traditional. Pupils almost always must use vous to a teacher.

Despite the trend towards informality it remains preferable to adopt a “precaution principle” of vous if in doubt.

Nouvel Observateur director Laurent Joffrin famously got upset over being tu-ed on Twitter, and gave up using it. “People would never dare to go up to someone in the street and call them tu because it’s a form of violence – you see drivers insulting each other using it,” he was reported to have said.

Photo:Rocky Morton