Tu and Vous – when to use each in French

Nicola Harrington - guest blogger living in France with 7 holiday rental gites

Nicola Harrington

Tu and Vous… the rules

French people talk to one another formally or informally, depending on who they are speaking to. There are, of course, some rules.

  • Always use the ‘tu’ form (informal) when talking to children and members of your family;
  • Use the ‘vous’ form when speaking to people in authority (police, lawyers, teachers etc) and people that you don’t know

…but inevitably there are some grey areas.

Tu and Vous… grey areas

Until a couple of years ago, just to be on the safe side and so as not to offend anyone, I used the ‘vous’ form with everyone. That way I could not offend by being over familiar. But I did offend… one day, a woman whom I know quite well said, ‘Why don’t you always use the ‘tu’ form… aren’t we friends yet?’

So what to do ?… The text books all say that when the time is right the French person will ask if you are happy to use the ‘tu’ form. Pah.. I never had that conversation; it would certainly make things a lot easier if that was the case.

The only way I have managed to navigate my way through this etiquette minefield is to try and avoid using either form until you figure out whether the person with whom you are talking to is addressing you as ‘tu’ or ‘vous’.

This works most of the time… but not all the time.

When talking to other parents at the school gate the ‘tu’ form is used after a relatively short period of time, but when talking to a teacher the “tu’ form is never used. I now have a problem. Iona’s teacher (of six years) is also the parent of two girls that attend the same school. He now teaches at a different school, so when I see him at school functions as a parent do I refer to him in the ‘tu’ or the ‘vous’ form?

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