|You? Or you?|
This lack of formal rules means that it might be best to explain things in terms of how the French use it in their lives, and what follows is a guide to some of the practices and attitudes you should know about, as well as some of the pitfalls to avoid. Firstly though, what is this phenomenon and how is it defined?
Called the ‘T-V distinction’ in sociolinguistics, it is the contrast in some languages, such as French, between the singular and plural second-person pronouns. This contrast doesn’t exist in English – where ‘you’ is used in both cases - but in French ‘tu’ is the singular and ‘vous’ is the plural. This difference means that depending on who they are used to address and in which circumstances, they can convey respect, courtesy, keeping one’s distance, politeness, familiarity, or insult. That’s why you have to be careful which one you use. (A historical note: there used to be an equivalent in older versions of English – ‘thou/thee’ for the singular and ‘you’ for the plural.)
‘Tu (toi, te)’ is the second person familiar pronoun in French, and ‘vous’ is the second person plural familiar pronoun, but ‘vous’ is also used as the more respectful form of the second person singular, thus replacing ‘tu’, and that’s where things start to get difficult. Which to use?
There is one custom that all of French society agrees on, so let’s begin with that. ‘Vous’ is what you use to address any stranger respectfully and politely in public, whatever their social status or background. That means everyone from shop assistants to waiters to bank staff and local government workers, and it also means literally anybody in the street, for example the person you ask for directions or the person you are apologising to for accidentally bumping into them while boarding a bus. There are no exceptions, and the use of ‘tu’ in these circumstances is considered to be extremely impolite.
That was the easy bit, but there are also many instances when either one or the other is usually used, and this is where things can become more delicate.
Friends and family almost always use the familiar ‘tu’ to each other and many work colleagues do likewise, whatever their position in the company. This is often the case in small companies and places like bars, restaurants and shops, although in some other companies colleagues at the same hierarchical level use ‘tu’ with each other but when it comes to senior management it’s a mutual ‘vous.’ It is rare these days for everyone to vouvoyer at work. When meeting people for the first time outside of a social setting, it is best to use ‘vous’ at first, even though the circumstances in which you meet may be relaxed, such as in a restaurant, where you strike up a conversation with people on the adjoining table. Note also that some older people still use ‘vous’ between themselves even though they are friends as that’s how things were many years ago.
That said, if you are introduced to the friend of a friend and in an informal setting, ‘tu’ is generally used automatically from the start. Children and teenagers universally use ‘tu’ to address each other. Younger people tutoie more and more easily and so do people such as artists and musicians, and in places such as clubs and associations.
Next, there are very few cases indeed in which one person would use ‘vous’ and the other would use ‘tu.’ It’s almost always a case of both people using one or the other, but there are a few exceptions. Schoolchildren in many schools have to use ‘vous’ when speaking to teachers whereas teachers may use ‘tu’ to them. A person who is much older than their interlocutor may ‘tutoyer’ whereas the younger one uses ‘vous.’ I am 58 and although I would not allow anyone to tutoie me without at least a tacit agreement – in which case we both use ‘tu’ - I do make an exception for people in, say, their 80’s, as long as they are talking to me in an agreeable manner. After all – and contrary to some sections of popular opinion – even the old have to earn respect.
Concerning children, they used to have to use ‘vous’ from the start to everyone, but these days they use the familiar ’tu’ to address all adults until they are old enough to know why a choice has to be made. There are no hard and fast rules here but I would remind any child of over 10 years old who I don’t know that he or she is being impolite by using ‘tu’ to me. Adults tend to tutoie children even older than 10 and expect to be answered with ‘vous’, although it would be impolite to use ‘tu’ when they get to say, 15, unless you know them.
Having met people and used ‘vous’ with them for a while, the next and very important question is ‘when do you both decide that you get on well enough or are on familiar enough terms that ‘vous’ is beginning to seem too formal and that ‘tu’ would be better?’ The rule here unfortunately is that there is no rule, and how they are used is considered to be a reflection of how polite people are and how well they relate to people.
I am someone who prefers to use ‘tu’ as soon as possible in as many circumstances as possible, and that’s only natural given that I like to be on informal terms with people. Other people on the other hand prefer to keep their distance a little by using ‘vous.’ If someone asks you if you may both use ‘tu’, say yes if possible (it’s a sign of wanting to be friends) but only if you want that to happen. You may also decide to initiate the change, but try and be sure that you are not asking prematurely and that the other person would agree before doing so because a refusal can be embarrassing.
However, if for example you are a young woman who works in an office where they normally use ‘vous’ and a manager you think is trying to be overly-familiar with you for all the wrong reasons wants to use ‘tu’ in order to become more bold in his amourous actions, refuse. Refuse politely, but refuse. And he must respect your decision.
A few must-nevers-but-weres and other pitfalls I have seen people fall into? There’s the young man I recall who used ‘tu’ to his girlfriend’s mother the first time he met her. Talk about giving a bad impression. Then there was the arrogant client who used ‘tu’ to a restaurant waiter as was routinely the case 100 years ago only for the waiter to tutoie him in return. The client complained, but the manager, to his credit, defended the waiter. And pity the poor young man who used ‘tu’ during a job interview. I know the interviewer and, needless to say, he did not hire the person concerned. At the opposite end of the scale, I know a lady who uses ‘vous’ to all her work colleagues in a company that uses ‘tu.’ She is reviled as a snob. Finally, one of my many errors when I was learning ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ was to tutoie a lady of over 70, thinking that her tutoiement of me was meant as a sign that she wanted to be informal. She did, but she still wanted to retain the old ‘tu’-‘vous’ tandem and I was put squarely back in my place. Very embarrassing.
It’s impossible to list all the scenarios, and people have different attitudes towards ‘tu’ and ‘vous’, which is why if my English-speaking French friends were to read this, some would agree with my descriptions whereas others wouldn’t. And the same goes for French-speaking English natives.
But nevertheless, don’t forget that although people will pardon your errors if your French is not that brilliant, from the moment you speak good French, you are supposed to be able to have the ability to sense when to use ‘tu’ and when to use ‘vous.’ Use them in a negligent manner and you could end up with the reputation of being vaguely uncouth, or worse, and used wisely, they are a means of demonstrating that you understand French people, their culture and their customs, and that you have good social skills.