A friend once told me about a dream (or maybe a nightmare) she had after living in France and studying French for a few months. She was a contestant on a television game show with a live audience. The host kept presenting people to her and the question was should she use “vous” or “tu” when speaking to them. She would slam down her buzzer and confidently yell, “Tu!” The audience would all laugh and the host would shake his head non.
It’s a funny dream, but many people learning French, particularly Anglophones where the informal and formal “you” doesn’t exist, my friend’s anxiety will feel familiar. And here’s a secret: it is confusing for the French too.
The basic rule is if you’re unsure use “vous.” It’s wiser to be too formal than too informal. If you don’t know a person’s name you’re safest using “vous,” unless you’re speaking to a child then “tu” is more appropriate. If someone uses “tu” with you, it is generally ok to respond with “tu,” but be careful. For instance, I am close to my husband’s French grandmother. She uses “tu” when speaking with me, but I use “vous” when responding to her (because she is older and to be respectful). Confused yet? Let’s try playing the game show and see how you would respond:
The local baker?
Vous. Even if you buy bread multiple times a day from him, stick with “vous.”
The building’s gardien?
Vous. She may have seen you taking out the garbage in your pajamas, but you should still use “vous.”
She will probably tell you which to use and may request you switch between “vous” and “tu” to practice both conjugations.
Your child’s teacher?
Vous. My daughter called her preschool teacher by her first name and used “tu.” On the first day of school, I asked her teacher what I should call her. (I was actually trying to find out her last name.) The teacher was my age and dressed in sneakers and jeans. She responded in all seriousness, “You call me Madame.” I always used “vous” with her.
Other parents at your child’s school?
Honestly, I listen to what they use and do the same. Half will use “tu” and tease me about my formalness if I use “vous.” The other half use “vous.”
Friends of friends?
It will depend on the difference between your two ages. If you are the same-ish or they are younger in age, go with “tu.” If they are older, stick with “vous” and listen to what they use.
Did you know that in the past, French husbands and wives and children would use “vous” with each other? It has mostly gone out of fashion, but don’t be surprised if you bump into it if you interact with traditional French families. My husband has a French co-worker whose six young children all use “vous” with their parents. They are nice, normal kids with a great relationship with their parents. It’s just the way it’s always done in their family and the parent’s feel that this formalness reinforces their parental authority.
Interested in learning more about when to use “vous” and “tu”? Call or contact us here to organize a private French lesson and cultural coaching in Paris.