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‘Vous? Tu? French people are more worried about mistakes than I am’

The French word for ‘you’ comes with a social dance that columnist Nick Inman refuses to join

French may have a short conversation to decide if they will call each other the formal ‘vous’ or informal ‘tu’ Pic: BearFotos / Shutterstock

I never cease to be surprised at the number of conversations I overhear between French people about the difference between vous and tu – the formal and informal ways of saying ‘you’.

We do not have this problem in English because we lost ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ around the time America replaced Britain as the major speaker of the language. 

English likes to simplify things. Why have two words for ‘you’ when one will do?

Vous sends a message that the other person is not one of your mates and that some respect and deference is required, but to me it always feels cold and unfriendly. 

Still, to master French, it is important to know how vous/tu works. 

Read more: Why French journalists use four words when one would do

French people often ask which ‘you’ to use

In theory, everyone in the universe is a vous to me unless I unilaterally decide otherwise or agree to a change of status with the other person.

When French people feel a need to change things between them, they get into a short conversation which starts: On peut se tutoyer? (‘Can we call each other tu?’). Or: On se tutoie ou on se vouvoie?

It is a reasonable request but it is very occasionally risky as it puts the other person in a potentially difficult situation. 

If he or she wants to preserve distance or rank – if they are your boss or the Minister of Finance, for example, they might not wish to switch from vous to tu. Saying as much, however, will sound haughty.

It is rare to hear anyone say non, je préfère qu’on me vouvoie (‘I prefer to be called vous’) or je suis plus à l’aise avec le vouvoiement, but it does happen.

Most times, however, the other person will almost audibly breathe a sigh of relief and say ‘of course’. 

Secretly, that is what they wanted too, but they felt awkward being the first to say anything.

A world of vous-people and tu-people

Now, this negotiation of different ‘younesses’ creates a problem – as you will have worked out. 

Each French person lives in their own world divided up into vous-people and tu-people and is expected to remember the difference.

Sometimes, they have to stop and reflect: ‘Did I agree with this particular person to use tu or are we still vous?’

And then they think through the consequences: ‘If we didn’t agree it and I do it, they will be offended. However, if we did agree it and I talk to them as vous, they will think they have done something wrong.’

As a foreigner, I grant myself exemption and almost everyone I meet gives me the same.

I am outside the standard pecking order and talking to me is a little like talking to a child who has not quite figured out how big society works.

I talk to everyone as tu unless I am applying for a driving licence or complaining in a shop. 

No one yet has socially snubbed me because I called them tu on our first meeting when it was clearly the wrong thing to do.

Read more: Common mistakes French learners make and how to fix them

Vous just will not go away

And so we come back to that conversation between two French people who have welcomed each other into their ‘tutoyering’ orbits.

This is the occasion for a discussion about the rules that do not exist and everyone is welcome to join in.

Someone, for instance, might declare their socialist solidarity. The Revolution briefly banned the use of vous. All trade union comrades are tu. In 1968, everyone on the streets called each other tu by default, hoping to bring the old stuffy world to an end.

Vous, however, has never gone away. Someone else in the conversation might tell the group they have always called their parents vous, which sounds positively Victorian to me.

Then everyone in the room will be drawn into a debate about whether or not primary school children should call their teachers tu, which seems to lack respect.

At what age should a fledgling French person learn the tu/vous distinction? 

There seems to be general agreement that from college onwards, teachers and students should call each other vous and thereafter every adult interaction must be on the basis of vous

Have you got that? 

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