Wednesday 20 January 2010, in La France
Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, I had a post on the finer points of the French second person pronouns “vous” and “tu”, which can be second person formal (for a single person) or second person plural, and second person familiar/informal (only for a single person), respectively. I get quite a few visitors to my site from searches and old links to that “vous versus tu” article, so thought I’d write a newer version.
When you learn French, you’re usually taught that “vous” is used to address groups, or, when applied to just one person, someone who’s older, an authority figure (for instance your manager, senator, president, etc.), or someone you don’t know well. And “tu” is used with a person you do know well: relative, friend, colleague, child, and so forth. When it comes to children under the age of 17, I’ve never heard anyone call them “vous”; it’s always “tu”.
Then there are the more subtle implications that come with these pronouns. In my own, now ten-year experience, I would characterize “vous” as the “respectful pronoun”, and “tu” as the “friendly pronoun”. While these meanings go along with the “formal” and “informal” descriptions, “respectful” and “friendly” are closer to the true sensation given when they’re used. That said, although an authority figure may call you “tu”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re friends and can address them with “tu”! The general rule of thumb is to call an authority figure, such as your manager, “vous” until they say “on peut se tutoyer !” which means “let’s address each other with ‘tu’!” and is the polite way to, basically, let you know that you can use “tu” as well, since they’ve probably been using it all along.
This is where the complications come in. Rule number one: Use “vous” with clients. Even if/when they tell you that you can use “tu” with them. Even when they insist that, really, they feel uncomfortable with you saying “vous” while they’re calling you “tu”, and you get along with them famously. Always. Address. Clients. With “vous”. Except when you use “tu”. Now you’re saying, “what?? But you made it rule number one and said ‘always’!” Yes, but I live in France, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this country, it’s that when someone says “always” in France, it means “most of the time, except for the times when it’s okay, which you just sort of have to intuit, and if you’re mistaken, it’s your fault, but if you’re right, it makes things go much more smoothly.”
Example: When chatting about how things in general are going, if you know a client well and they’ve been using “tu” to address you (and, I would add, they’re not a Chief Head Director Manager), you can slip in a “tu” and see how they react. If they tense up, pretend that you didn’t really mean it by switching back to “vous” immediately, and don’t do “tu” again for a while, unless perhaps they invite you to. If, on the other hand, the person relaxes and talks to you more openly, congratulations! You can use “tu” safely whenever you’re not chatting about work. In any case, always use “vous” when discussing business matters. Why? “Vous” is a sign of respect, and also a sign of distance. In a professional context, it says, “you don’t need to take what I say personally, this is business.” “Tu” is always personal.
This can also protect you in professional life. Imagine, hypothetically speaking, that a client goes ballistic on you, using “tu” and calling you names that have nothing to do with your work, but are, instead, of a personal nature. If you respond angrily, but use “vous” and choose your comments with basic respect in mind, you’ll be fine. But if you use “tu”, even with essentially respectful responses? You can be written up or even fired with cause. Remember: “vous” is respectful, “tu” is personal. Practically anything (except clear insults) you say when using “vous” is tinged with respectful restraint. This is especially true in a professional context. (However, if you were to use “vous” with a friend, it would still be seen as distancing, and rude, since true friends always use “tu”.) On the other side of the coin, I’ve rarely seen anything good come out of fights that degrade into pointed “tu”s shot like arrows (the French have a peculiar way of pronouncing “tu” and “toi” when they’re really pissed off that makes it clear how little they think of the person they’re aiming it at). There are middle-of-the-road disagreements with “tu” just as there are in English, mainly between friends, but a civilized duel between people using “vous” will never attain the same unrestrained, in-the-dirt depth of brawls that only “tu” can reach.
In everyday life I’ve had to deal with a few difficult neighbors, and using “vous” with them has been instrumental: it can calm them down to simply point out, “moi, je vous vouvoie, alors vous voyez qu’il y a du respect, quand même !” which means “I’m calling you ‘vous’, so you can tell there’s respect, okay!” This almost always worked on a loud upstairs neighbor I had in my previous apartment. He would get drunk, turn on football (soccer) matches at two in the morning, throw around furniture, and inevitably I’d open my window and say, “baissez le son, s’il vous plaît !” (“Turn it down, please!” using “vous”.) He’d usually reply, “comment tu me parles, toi !!!” (Literally, “how are you talking to me!!!” but it has rather aggressive undertones in French; it’s more like asking “just who do you think you’re talking to!!!”) To which I’d respond with the “I’m calling you ‘vous’.” He’d calm down and say, “oh. Excusez-moi, madame,” which is the “vous” form, see!
As regards “vous” among relatives, it’s rare to see people still address family members with “vous”, but I have experienced it. My ex-grandfather-in-law was an exceptionally neat person, who, among other things, had been clarinettist in the Lyon National Orchestra and had fought in WWII as part of the French Resistance. (He would get terribly sad when telling stories about it, never proud; he’d always seen it as his moral duty to be a résistant.) When I first met him, I called him “vous”, as is the norm. Although he later said I could call him “tu”, I never could bring myself to do it; I felt too much respect for him. He had earned his “vous”. There are some families where grandchildren will vouvoyer (use vous with) their grandparents, so it wasn’t entirely unusual, but that is changing.