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Tu instead of Vous?


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Greetings - especially to those of you resident in France and hence hearing/speaking French daily. 

I read in today's Daily Telegraph that the French are now using the Vous form less and less and are now using tu more and more to all and sundry - and not just children, dogs etc.

Is this really the case?   My French neighbours with whom I chat whenever we visit our second home in the
Creuse have always addressed us, individually, as vous - they are now retired but still have their principal home in Paris.  They address our adult son as Tu (we have know each other 14 years and are all about the same age.

I am  curious about this as nowhere on our meanderings through France each year have I noticed this extra familiarity - but perhaps I am not listening intently enough!


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Our neighbour, who is a lovely 'over-the-top' sort of bloke, has addressed me (and my wife) as "Tu" almost from the off.  But he seems to do that with just about anyone who fetches up on his doorstep.

His charming wife has taken a year to get to the same point, even after several dinners at each other's places. (No lack of friendliness, by the way, just "Vous").  Happily it's now "Tu" with her too.

We'll be having dinner together over the weekend & I'll ask them: bet they won't be able to explain it. 

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I go regularly to a needlework group and the (French) ladies there have often discussed the "tu" and "vous" issue - they seem to be as confused as we are!  They used to know where they stood, "vous"-ing everyone they didn't know well, but things have changed in the last ten years or so.  Within the group there was a vast disparity of usage now and it seemed to me that the more posh the person (my description) the more likely they were to stick with vous.  One frightfully upper-crust type said that she only used "tu" to her immediate family and wouldn't dream of using it elsewhere, not even to this group, which has been meeting for years. 

I work on the principle that I "vous" everyone I meet and only switch to "tu" when they do so.  It's a bit hard keeping track of who does what, but amongst friends the wonderful "ça va?" avoids tackling things immediately and then hopefully they will ask "comment allez vous?" or "comment vas-tu?" to jog my memory.  I do have trouble when trying to ask plumbers etc if all is going well.  I want to say "Tout va bien?" but my accent leads it to sound like "tu vas bien?" causing embarassment all round, so I've now started to say "c'est bien?" with lots of all-encompassing arm-waving and that seems to do. 

I have more trouble with "nous" and "on".  It seems weird to me when you ask someone if they had a good weekend to be told "on est allé à Toulouse".  Can anyone tell me if there are (simple) rules about this?

Chrissie (81)

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 I used to always use vous with everybody who I did not know (other than to children). Then everybody started telling me to use tu. One flying instructor explained "in words on one syllable" one day: "I am not a teacher so you do not use vous" - and it was only the 2nd time I had met him. I do find that having used vous with everybody for ages it is difficult to make the switch and at the moment I will often use vous sometimes, tu at other times.

If I am unsure (e.g. at La Marie) then I will still use vous.


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'Older folk' tend to use Tu because you're younger than them - a bit like you using Tu when speaking to kids; but it's not a rule - just less of a potential faux pas.

If you're english (or foreign) then you shouldn't really run into any problems using Tu with all and sundry; the fact that you're attempting to speak french should be good enough.

The general rule seems to be that if you don't know the person pretty well you should avoid using 'Salut!' and Tu.

My girlfriend's sister in law still uses vous when speaking with her gran - and I think it's right to treat all older people with this level of respect.

Workplace - Tu is okay with peers but shouldn't be used with your boss(es) unless they instigate it first. Shops - always Vous (obviously). 

Chrissie: On and Nous are interchangeable, you usually write using nous and it sounds a tad more 'proper'; but there is no faux pas aspect involved.

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The "rules" seem rather blurred now except that you should continue to use "vous" with non-acquaintances (officials, shop staff, etc) and people treated with particular respect (e.g. Monsieur Maire, the elderly).

I have a good French friend who liberally uses both tu and vous with me now so I tend to do the same. When I asked him about it he said not to worry too much about which was used in our conversations, although he preferred that I slipped in a few "tus" regularly to show friendliness. Another French person - whom I have not met in person but we both contribute to the same car website forum - said that exclusive use of the "vous" form can appear stuffy and as unwillingness to treat the other person as an equal. I have noticed in his PMs to me through that forum that he has used both forms without it seems following any particular rules.

So if in doubt, use "vous".  But feel free to test the water with "tu" with people you know and if you hear some "tus" come back, you know you  are in!  Just don't leap in with "tu" from the start.

Of course, there may be regional variations....

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In our part of France (Hautes-Pyrenees) we've found that people seem to

switch to using "tu" quite quickly, eg the secretary at the Mairie and

out next door neighbour after only a few meetings, but then I've found

that here it's generally much less formal compared with when I lived in

Paris (though that was 10+ years ago now).  I was certainly taught

that the greeting "ca va" (sorry can't do accents on this computer!)

was quite informal/slangy but everybody uses it here from the Maire to

the Notaire.

I always think that "on" is a bit like the english "one" in the sense

that it conveys the meaning of more than one person but using singular

forms of the verb, but much much less formal in French, very commomly

used and very useful because usually the singular form of the verb is

easier to remember than the "nous" form!


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I'm reminded of the story that one of Mitterand's cronies - I think it was Jacques Attali, suggested that after knowing each other for so long they should use the tu form to each other. Mitterand's supposed reply was "Comme vous voulez".

Our neighbours use the vous form with us but that may be because we always use it with them - I'd never really thought of doing any  differently after learning French at school where it was suggested that tu was for family and animals. I hope they don't think us overly formal - maybe I'll ask next time I see them, let's hope I don't get a Mitterand response.


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I see how it can be confusing :-) My partner would often use Vous with me after longish conversation trying to stay formal (at banks, etc...) :-)

I've been away from France for the last 13 years so might not be at the latest trend of linguistic but the general rule is that one should use "vous" until one has been invited to use "Tu". The most "senior" person would be the one asking! ;-)

I find the "vous" a useful way to keep the distance with people. Especially artisans, etc as I always feel otherwise it gets a bit "pally"...

Even among French people, you get to funny situations with, for example, my mum, using Tu with her sisters but Vous with their husbands while I use Tu with all my aunts/uncles...

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Albert the InfoGipsy wrote the following post at 14/07/2006 11:01:

I've been browsing a number of French (francophone) fora recently and

noticed that many of the participants use 'tu', even when responding to

obvious first-time posters (i.e. total strangers).

This has always been the case Albert, and is an accepted part of french

netiquet, sauf! l'Académie française and other such french language

dedicated sites.

My thoughts on the initial question are, from what I`ve experienced,

that it is happening and seems to be coming from the younger generation

upwards, viewed I imagine as a rather old seemingly outdated and

unecessary part of their french language. I`d like to point out that I

don`t happen to agree with them.

 Certainly I see a lot more informality between children and adults

than before, say around 10 years ago, and a teenagers text messaging

and forum interaction on some websites, entre eux, barely even looks

like french......

One of my elderly neighbours still can`t after 20 years tutoyer her

daughter-in-law, and she was brought up in a household where children

vouvoyer their parents, I guess old habits die hard.

On the other hand, a work colleague and friend in his thirties "tu`s"

everyone, and his feeling is like it or lump it! he never seems to get

any grief for it from anyone....... maybe he`s blessed........ or maybe

it`s cos ezzz a big mec.

I think these changes take place naturally in all modern languages over

certain periods, I mean did`nt we all used to "ye yee oldy worldy, thou

shalt and thee" in a time not so far away, and in the forties and

fifties everybody spoke awwfully nicellly don`t you think?

I think it would be a shame to lose the vous form from everyday life,

and I think it says a lot about the french and their society, even if

the politeness, of which I see on a daily basis is not always from the

heart, it is there, and that deserves some recognition and helps in

some small way I reckon in keeping all us savages ....... civilised.

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[quote user="cooperlola"]

My rule of thumb : Unsure? Use vous - can't go wrong or be unintentionally insulting.

I have a good french friend who says she has been known to get a few funny looks from her own casual habit of tu toyer ing all the time!


This is a good system and one which I employ myself - only using "tu" when it is used to me.

I have a French friend who is horrified at many of the examples of what he sees as the erosion of the French language - "le weekend", for example, exasperates him enormously. He addresses his wife as vous!

My friend may be more than slightly eccentric but, sometimes, after I've been entertained by one of his 'things aren't what they used to be' rants, I'm reminded that it is possible to offend people, without meaning to, by appearing to be unmannerly. And isn't the French sense of politesse one of the reasons why we enjoy being allowed to share their world?

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I am not trying to subvert the drift of this, but i wondered, if kissing was related to 'tu' usage.   My new french neighbour lurched towards me with kisses after SECOND meeting.  I confessed to being a little bit horrified !   He speaks excellent english and likes to practice his english so we tend to speak in that language.   however, on the rare occasions that i do speak to him in french, or try to clarify wht he is trying to say in english (which is weird cos his english is actually much better than my french i think), then i do use 'vous'; but that seems a bit ridiculous when you then kiss someone!    Having said that for some reason he spoke to me in german the other day and i automatically replied and used 'du' so perhaps he thinks i am a little confused.    any idea if kissing stage is reached if tu could safely be used ?
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The French shake hands the first time they meet you and from then on it's often the "bise". Just another way of greeting which doesn't always mean they like you! Just habit. Found this extract on another site:

"In the meantime, keep in mind that la bise is NOT a kiss. It's just a hello or a good-bye. And more and more, it's being replaced with a friendly handshake. As a guest in France, let your French hosts take the lead!"


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"This is a good system and one which I employ myself - only using "tu" when it is used to me."

The only problem with everyone waiting for the other to make the first move is that no one then makes it!

I enjoy French politeness, too, but am none too keen on remaining excessively and unnaturally formal because of a protocol that French people themselves seem unsure about. If they are loosening up a bit, I see that as a positive thing. It doesn't have to mean that good manners go out of the window and I would not dream of causing offence by tu-ing someone who clearly preferred to be addressed with vous. I see that as their prerogative.

I am finding that even some quite conservative French people seem to enjoy the effect on themselves of having less formal Brits (lager louts and other loud-mouths excepted) in their midst. Not long after I bought the house, my son-in-law (a very outgoing character who could then speak hardly a word of French) and I were invited back to the home of a French couple we had met only that evening, for refreshments. There followed a very lively discussion, my son-in-law succeeding in getting his points across remarkably well with a combination of effective body language and gesticulations, supplemented with dodgy translations from me.  The husband's views might be described as reactionary, right wing, nationalistic, etc, but they said they had a really enjoyable evening (as we did). I bump into him regularly now and while our opinions are often miles apart, he seems more tolerant than he was at first and we get on like a house on fire, using first names and tu-ing and vous-ing as we please. (If he thought I was being offensive or disrespectful, he would probably set his hunting dogs on me....)

I agree though with the approach "whenever in doubt, use vous".

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On the golf course it is customary, so I'm told, to tu-toi your playing partners, whoever they might be and whether or not you've met them before.  Once back in the clubhouse, the more formal form of address should be used, if appropriate.

I've played, on tu-toi terms, with amongst other dignitaries, the president of a major french bank, and a member of parliament.  Back in the bar, in the presence of the banker's minions and the politician's constituents, it felt perfectly reasonable to revert to "vous", as a signal that I did'nt feel I had become a special buddy.

This temporay relaxation of the rule might apply in any sporting situation.  Be careful, though.  One explanation for Zidane's headbut in the World Cup Final is that the Italian kept calling him "tu".


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  • 2 weeks later...

If you make a "bise " to a man (except if you are a child ) ,you will be known like an homosexual (it is chocking but right ).With a man ,you have to shake his hand and call him "vous ".In France ,we observe a rule :we use "vous " with everybody except children or friends .

Au revoir et linguistiquement -sans prétention sous jacente - vôtre.



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Brother in law, cousins, uncles, exuberant types in the south - loads of male kissing going on!!

As for the "tu" / "vous" distinction, it is far from clear cut.  All teachers, for example, say "tu" to each other when they work in the same place, even if they don't know each other.  Students at university also use "tu" all the time with all their peers.  Family members don't always.  I don't use "tu" with all my husband's family.

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