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Vouvoiement vs tutoiement

I came across an article on BBC yesterday that discusses the use of “tu” on social media and how this is causing a cultural clash in France. But first, let’s pedal back a little for those who read the sentence above and went “what”?

What’s tu?

Or for the Malaysians, apa tu? ;)

We have it easy in English. When you talk to someone, you refer to the person simply as “you”. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if it’s address to one person, or several, or the age and rank of the person. However, in French, not quite so. There’s an entire quagmire to navigate here and a false move can quickly make you a social pariah to said offended person.

At a basic level, “tu” is you in the singular, and “vous” is you in the plural. Add on the layer of politesse, “tu” is now an informal you, used to address a friend, a colleague (but not a superior unless he/she is a friend or has ok’ed), a child or a family member/relative; “vous” is a formal you, used to address anyone you don’t know, someone older than you, someone with authority (bosses fall in this category) and someone you’re showing a level of respect (say, the President).

Basic advice

Any French language teacher would tell the students in his/her class – if in doubt, always use “vous”. This way, you risk not offending anyone in the process. Luckily, as foreigners, our attempt to speak French is deemed a valiant personal effort, so we’re less likely to be held in contempt should we err on the side of overly-hastened familiarity. (Yes, I shamelessly use my identity as my way out when I use the incorrect form of address.)

However, when you think about it, how does one know when exactly one could cross from the formal vous to the informal tu without coming under fire? In English, the shift from formality to informality can happen quickly, even if we don’t hear it in using “you”. Normally, if someone is ok with me using his/her first name, I assume I’ve passed the invisible line. If I am still to “Sir” or “Madam” them, then we stay strictly formal with one another.

Not quite so in French. At least that’s my observation. You may be given leave to call someone by his/her first name and still you continue to vouvoyer him/her (more on this in a bit). This is not just a foreigner’s dilemma. Even the French has trouble sometimes figuring when the transition could take place. They too adhere to “if in doubt” rule.

Let’s have a look into different scenarios in daily French life.

Family first

Within family, according to Frédéric, it is more usual to use tutoiement (unless you come from a really old-fashioned kind of family or nobles, in which case, you will vouvoyer anyone older than you) and he does that with his parents. However, it appears “family” doesn’t include in-laws; for example his sister-in-laws still address his parents using “vous” despite having bear them adorable grandchildren.

My lesson from this: use vouvoiement with his parents (even if I call them by their first names – which I found odd initially since according to what’s polite in my family, I should be calling them “uncle” and “auntie”), and tutoiement with his siblings and their families. Straight forward. Not that I haven’t make any mistakes in the process, mind, as someday I still forgetfully slip in “tu” instead of “vous” while in conversation with his parents. Oh yes, inwardly, I cringed.

Managers, vendors, concierge etc

At work, this is relatively easy. Any colleagues of similar age, rank and job – “tu” away without fear. Anyone else higher on the management chain, stick to “vous” until you’re given permission to tutoyer them. The relationship is clear, pending on the hierarchy.

What about other people you interact with on a regular basis?

Go to the market often and you’ll come to know the first names of the vendors who sell you vegetables, fruits, charcuterie and the likes. Live in a building like mine and you’ll see the concierge on a daily basis to make small talks in passing. But I’ve always wondered, at what point can we stop calling each other “vous” and move on with “tu”?

Look at the paradox. I’m their clients, so they would deem it impolite to tutoyer me. Meanwhile, I also want to stay in their good books so it’s unthinkable for me to stop vouvouyer-ing them. We’re at an impasse. This could go on and on for a long time. Maybe forever. I guess since I’m the foreigner, I could one day try to tutoyer them and observe their reactions. If they follow suit, good, I’m over at the informal territory. Otherwise, I would go back to vouvoiement and pretend that was one-time error made by a ditzy foreigner.


This is easy – “tu” all the way.

Unless you’re me.

See, when learning French, certain sentences are pretty much used when you’re out and about interacting with people you don’t know. As such, the “vous” form remains pretty much carved in my brain. Pouvez-vous and s’il vous plaît are my major Achilles’ heels. I ended up using them with Frédéric and my closest friends. I had to consciously switch to peut-tu and s’il te plaît all the time. They don’t yet come to me naturally!

Of course, it illicits good-natured ribbing every so often.

“Oh but there’s no need to be so formal with me.”
“Are you putting a distance between us?”
“I was sure I’ve told you to tutoyer me.”
“I’m too young to be vouvoyer!”

I can’t help but blush.

(Social) Media

It is true that things are oh so casual on the social media front. Any conversation in French on Facebook are with my friends, so there’s no doubt on the form that I use. I only interact very limitedly on Twitter with Francophones, mostly involving retweets so I’m pretty safe there. I admit I’d probably would feel rather odd to vouvoyer someone on Twitter, given how often the conversations flows as if friends are talking. Only this is via cybernet and regularly with people I don’t (yet) know in real life.

Something I find rather amusing is in the printed media, as in books. In my early days of exploring the world of reading in French, I would either go with (1) children’s books for the simplicity in the language or (2) M&Bs (called Harlequins here) for the predictable plots so I can play “guess the word” when coming across new words.

What amused me was even with the torrid affairs or love entanglements etc between the main characters, they somehow still always vouvoyer each other. I’d imagined if you’ve seen each other in the buff, surely it’s long past the time to be so formal with one another? I can’t say it’s the “standard” way to writing in French, to be formal, since I have read other novels since which characters do tutoyer in conversations. Therefore, the question remains – why so formal, dear lovers?

Nonetheless, as confusing as the social politesse that dictates vouvoiement and tutoiement, it seems to me it is here to stay, at least for a while longer than the Twitter generation. While the statistics for Twitter has not been easy to verify, a recent report by Semiocast shows that up till end of June 2012, there are approximately 7.3 million users in France. Even then, a large percentage of these accounts are either (1) inactive or (2) belong to companies rather than individual members. With such low percentage of personal permeation into the French culture, the level of influence suggested by the BBC article is somewhat hyperbolic. Moreover, companies are trying to reach out to many so they would always use “vous”.

In the mean time, I’ll go back to threading the fine line between friendliness and polite distance. ;) (And if you’re pondering why I use the pictures that I used, scroll over image for text.)

Category: Local lingo, Musing, People

Tagged: , , , , , ,

15 scribbles & notes

  1. medca says:

    hahahah…i’tu’ dia ;)

  2. Selena says:

    like the difference between ‘anda’, ‘engkau’, ‘kamu’, i suppose?

  3. Chloé says:

    Hehe. Of course, I know people who might be offended once they told you to use “tu”: a person met in the train or a boss for example. “Stop using “tu”, you’re making me feel old!” But I can’t stop it! Because I don’t know them enough or because there is some underlying hierarchy… Worst case of course is my in-laws :) I do use “vous” with them, and at least my mother-in-law has mentioned I should use “tu”, but it just doesn’t come naturally to me… most of the time! So I guess it depends on what I’m talking about! How trickier can you get? Overall, I try to avoid sentences with “tu” or “vous” altogether :P

    • Lil says:

      see, case in proof, it’s not problematic only for foreigners! ;) good tip, to avoid sentences with tu or vous whenever possible. i should try (with my limited grasp of the language)

  4. sila says:

    chloe, it’s tricky in malaysian too. like selena mentioned, there are many options not just for “you” but also for “i”. for safety’s sake, i just avoid saying “saya”/”aku” “awak/anda/engkau/kamu” etc. i refer to myself in the third person (which is an acceptable practise in malaysia) and avoid the “you” pronoun at all costs. unless it’s my close friends and family ;)

    • Lil says:

      but in french, it’s not just a matter of using the pronouns – the verbs must also correpond to the form. now i am pondering how to circumvent this… hmmm…

      maybe something along, for example, instead of asking “do you need help?” (“t’as besoin d’aide?” / “vous avez besoin d’aide?”), can switch to “does anyone need help?” (“quelqu’un a besoin d’aide?”)

      gosh – one word – complicated. and my sentences above are even along the more informal line, since question should be posed with verb-pronoun in inverse form, i.e. as-tu or avez-vous.

    • Chloé says:

      actually, asking one person “quelqu’un a besoin d’aide ?” would make it sound like you’re addressing a kid :$ i think maybe the best option (though a bit informal) could be “besoin d’aide ?” and leave the rest unsaid ;)

    • sila says:

      sm i glad we don’t have to have verb/noun agreement in malay! it would be a huge case of ADOI otherwise :D

    • sila says:

      oops sm = am in the above ;)

    • Lil says:

      sila, tell me about it! chinese is even easier – no tenses to worry about. just, well, tens of thousands of characters to learn, but hey, no tenses! :p

      chloe, dunno, since i’ve never tried that before, just thought that it may make sense but now that you mention it, i guess i could see where the “talking to kids” part comes in – teacher in the classroom scenario!

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