7

I was going through this recently asked question. The general sentiment was that if you're using "vous" while referring to someone, you're not familiar enough to ask such a question.

My source of doubt comes from me being Indian. In Hindi, our equivalent for "vous" is "aap" and for "tu" is "tu" (both transliterated to English). It's considered perfectly normal to use "aap" in familial/informal settings since using it shows that you respect the referred person.

I've always (rather naively) assumed that this is also the case for French. But the linked question got me questioning my basic understanding. So, to reiterate my question after giving the context, "Can we use vous in an informal setting when we still want to show that we respect the person we are addressing to?"

1
  • Between adults, who are getting to know each other or have long conversations, it is customary to ask: Is it alright if I tutoie you?
    – Lambie
    May 25 at 23:22

2 Answers 2

6

Whether to use tu or vous depends on the relationship between the persons, not on the context. It's common to use vous in an informal context if you're talking to someone you don't know.

(There are rare exceptions where people who would normally use tu, use vous in specific contexts, such as in the army. Most people can go through their life without directly encountering such exceptions.)

One thing to keep in mind is that in French, tu/vous is always symmetrical except when adults are talking to children: if Alice says tu to Bernard then Bernard says tu to Alice. The exception is that adults typically always use tu with children, whereas children use vous when talking to adults who aren't family or friends of the family. Apart from that, social distance might justify using vous, but it goes both ways. For example, if your boss uses tu when talking to you, that's a sign you should use tu as well.

Note that the boundary of what is considered child vs adult can vary. In particular, a young adult who is a university student would normally keep using vous when talking to professors, even with the minority of professors who use tu. University is the only context I can think of where the child/adult dissymmetry extends to a “child” who would otherwise be considered an adult.

You would never use vous when talking to family, even to older relatives. (There may be an exception in “old money” families. I don't know if this is still the case today or only an obsolete stereotype.)

There are many situations where French people are unsure whether to use tu or vous. If there is a clear social difference, then it's normally up to the “higher” person to indicate their preference — for example, a manager onboarding a new employee should indicate whether the company culture calls for tu or vous. (In some company cultures, either tu or vous is so pervasive that it goes unsaid.) It's perfectly fine to ask something like “Est-ce qu'on se tutoie ?” if unsure.

Age might be a factor here, in that the older person might be the one to take the initiative of using tu, but the result is always symmetrical: there is never a situation where it's socially acceptable for the older person to use tu and for the younger adult person to use vous. (Excepting the student/professor case I mentioned above, where the student is considered a child for tu/vous purposes.)

In Comment demander poliment à une femme, the context where vous is out of the question is dating. If you're dating someone, you're firmly in tutoiement territory. Using vous in an ambiguous situation (is this just two persons who happen to eat at the same table or is it a date?) would be a sign that you aren't interested and want to keep the relationship to the level of being acquaintances or colleagues and not friends or partners. (Of course the converse is not true: using tu between colleagues or between distant friends is common.) Note that French people do cheek-kissing as a greeting, typically only between females or between a female and a male, and that can happen between people who use vous.

Final note: my answer applies to late 20th/early 21st century France. Other French-speaking areas tend to use tu more liberally, but as symmetrically. In older times, vous was more common and possibly less symmetric.

9
  • What do you mean by symmetical?
    – Lambie
    May 25 at 23:20
  • 1
    @Lambie meaning that if I call you "tu", you're never going to call me "vous" except in the specific scenarios Gilles outlines, and vice versa
    – AAM111
    May 26 at 3:15
  • 2
    Well I don't really agree on the symmetrical stuff. It's very common within families to say vous to you mother-in-law/father-in-law to show respect, while they can say tu. In working environment, if your boss say tu it does not mean you can say tu too, except maybe in hi-tech companies in which everybody is young.
    – Necklondon
    May 26 at 6:41
  • 1
    @Necklondon In a working environment, if your boss says tu, you should absolutely say tu. Saying vous to a boss who says tu would be infantilizing. High-tech companies, and companies where everybody is young, tend to have everyone saying tu, while more traditional industries tend to have everyone saying vous, with middle ground saying tu if to people at the same or close hierarchical level and vous between people at different levels. But it's always the same in both directions. Within families, as I say, this is traditional in upper class families, but by no means common. May 26 at 9:36
  • 2
    @Lambie It's a mark of disrespect from the cops. Normally people whose relationship is some social framework (e.g. police/public, merchant/customer, …) use vous unless they belong to the same organization or community that uses tu (e.g. many companies, schools, clubs, …). Occasionally police might use tu, e.g. in “banlieues” when the cop grew in the same neighborhood, but then it's supposed to be symmetrical. A cop using tu arresting someone who uses vous is a cop insulting someone who's likely afraid to retaliate. The other way round would also be a mark of disrespect by the way. May 31 at 20:27
0

I agree with Gilles that the use of tu or vous is a marker of the relationship, not of the context (note that there are regional differences, in Quebec tu seems used so much that I don't know the value they give to vous, while as a Belgian I seem to stick to vous slightly more than the French; there are also generational aspects).

There is a distance aspect as well as a respect one in the choice of tu or vous, and that distance aspect makes it unlikely that a native speaker will use vous in a romantic situation: we'll first try to switch to tu as a way to test if the other is ready to progress in that direction.

Asymmetrical use is unusual, but in my experience more common than what Gilles hints. It is always the result of an asymmetrical relationship. Adult/children (and in some case it may stay so after the child becomes an adult even if the relationship has mutated in a friendship), mentor/mentee in general (professor/student case given by Gilles; it was also common for religious leader/member of the community when I was still an observer of such relationships decades ago, it would happen even when the priest was younger than the community member, that may be no more a common usage today). It can happen in the workplace, either due to a mentor/mentee kind of relationship or just with power hungry bosses (I know of two doctors for which it is the case with their team; it isn't the only thing which feels unhealthy to me as an observer there, but I can't deny it happens).

There is the funny cases when you have several relationships which are calling for different usage. If your boss is a member of your sport club -- where usually everybody is using tu with everybody -- and you work at a place where everybody is using vous with everybody, you can end up using vous at work and tu in the sport club or always using tu or vous (but that could leave a feeling of power play or excessive flattering); that depends a lot on the circumstances and the personalities of the people involved.

An additional note which may not be obvious : if you are in the older or more powerful position, insisting in using tu, even in symmetrical use, when your interlocutor doesn't really want it may be felt as power play as well and thus not well received even if they comply with your request (if they don't, that for sure a sign that you should revert to vous as well).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.