I'm not speaking of contexts in which I should appropriately use 'tu' or 'vous', I'm actually referring to the actual shock of it all.

Is it the equivalent (in english, for example) of saying "Hey bro! What's up, man?" to a complete stranger in America?

I could understand some people getting confused, but maybe not insulted.

I suppose my question is:

Does French culture perceive such an informal address as an insult? And if so, how grave is that insult? Is it the equivalent of being cussed out by a complete stranger in english?

I understand that there might be some leeway given to tourists, since they're still grasping the language, but I thought just as a point of culture I want to know how people actually react to the formal/informal addressing.


  • 2
    I lived in Aix-en-Provence for 4 months. My personal experience has lead me to the following conclusions, for teenagers/young adults, at least in the south of France: 1.) Tu is appropriate when talking to someone in a group, even if you don't know them. 2.) Vous is appropriate when talking to somebody one-on-one (e.g., a random young person on the street who is alone). 3.) Tu is almost expected at bars, especially at night - vous is not inappropriate, though university students tend to give weird looks, as in "you're being too formal - why? We're at a bar, bro." Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 21:07
  • 1
    @ChrisCirefice Your age and the age of the people you talk with also makes a difference.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:07

7 Answers 7


Tu used inappropriately can be interpreted as a lack of respect by certain people. It would be the equivalent of being overly friendly with a senior manager you haven't met yet. The person would probably not be insulted per se but will probably think that you do not respect their status.

If the context is you being a tourist it would not be weird if you used exclusively "vous", except to friends. That would be your safest bet to net embarass yourself.


Short answer: It depends on who you are talking to.

Long answer: If you respect the person, then vous is appropriate. If the person is a stranger, then use vous. Otherwise, it is perfectly fine to use tu. In addition, using tu is not an insult; vous is just more formal and slightly more polite. Using tu is certainly not the same as "cussing someone out" in English.

Hope this helps!


Roughly, use tu when you would be comfortable calling someone by their given name. Note that the French are more touchy about it than Quebecers (in the workplace, it's expected you'll use vous a lot more in France, whereas in Quebec you'll frequently be called tu by salespeople or waiters).

  • I live in quebec and I can't remember the last time I used "vous" to address someone formally.
    – AboveFire
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 19:31

If a French person started choosing between tu and vous randomly, then it's clear that using tu inappropriately would cause problems more often than an inappropriate vous would, and is certainly more dangerous. However, it's important to understand that using vous instead of tu can also be a problem in certain situations where less formality is expected. It can create an unwanted distance if your vous clashes with what most people would do in the same situation.

You need to distinguish between V-V, T-T and V-T relationships. Even within a single country like France, there is a high degree of variation, along generational, social, geographic, gender lines, etc., but also for idiosyncratic reasons.

I've always been struck by the certainty French people seem to have when they tell you what the "rules" are for using tu and vous. The truth is that while there are some areas of general agreement, there are also many areas where people disagree. (For example, should you say tu to your father-in-law? And he to you?) But everybody seems to think that their own rules are the rules everybody else is following, without realizing just how varied practices are.

An article on the subject that I thought was interesting can be found here: http://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/coloquio_paris/ponencias/pdf/cvc_hughson.pdf It is based on a survey of students and teachers at a high school near Paris, asking them about their own practices in various situations where they need to choose between tu and vous.


Unless you are yourself a kid or talking to a kid, just use vous. Nobody will ever be outraged if you do it, being too polite is never insulting.

Wait for the person you are talking with to suggest using tu ( « on peut se tutoyer » ) and don't take that initiative before being well aware with the level of familiarity required. Even if you are aware, don't directly use tu without your interlocutor agreement. The only exceptions that come in mind are for family members and colleagues from the same company.

As already stated, French canadians tend to have more relaxed rules.

  • Are the rules of using "tu" that straight in France? I live in Canada and rarely even hear "vous".
    – AboveFire
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 19:34
  • 1
    @AboveFire Yes. French Canadian are indeed often using tu in situations where vous will be the norm in France.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:04

"Tu" is a friendly form to say You (Friends)

"Vous" is a formal form to say You (use why talking with the boss of an enterprise or someone else who is important)


There are situations were using tu instead of vous (and even using vous instead of tu) is perceived to be insulting (a native speaker may very well intend to be insulting by doing so).

For a visibly non native speaker, I'd fear a faux-pas less with higher up (who tend to be well traveled enough to understand the matter and are in position to give you the opportunity to apologize if they feel strongly about it -- they will seem more stupid than you to any outsiders if they do, so they usually won't show it if they do), than with people in a service position (waiters, cashiers, ...) who may not be aware of the difficulty for non native speaker, feel strongly you are asserting a social dominance by using tu and are not in position to discuss the matter.

  • Using vous instead of tu cannot (IMHO) be insulting.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 9:57
  • 1
    @jlliagre, being too polite for the situation can be insulting. Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 10:02
  • I agree using vous might surprise someone you usually say tu to but I would not call that an insult, just showing a change of attitude (or a failing memory).
    – jlliagre
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 10:09
  • There is quite a bit of prejudice in this answer. I don't think most “higher ups” are so well traveled but waiters certainly have many opportunities to talk with tourists (including French-speaking tourists from Belgium or Canada, who, as other have noted, routinely use “tu” without meaning anything bad)…
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 10:57
  • @Relaxed, I fear more to hurt the humble than the proud and it shows prejudice. Well, that's a kind of prejudice I can feel proud I assume. Someone with foreign subordinates has better to be aware and ready to handle cultural differences. That's not a requirement for a waiter or a cashier and they too may feel insulted if addressed improperly. (BTW, I don't think Belgians are using tu in a different way from Frenches -- IMHO there are far more individual and age group variations) Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 14:59

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