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When to use “tu” or “vous” in French

When it comes to addressing a person foreign people always hesitate: should one use “tu” or “vous” in French?

In English “you” has no connotations of familiarity or lack of respect, however in France the use of “tu” is quite familiar, whilst “vous” shows respect for a person or is used in more formal situations.  Take care therefore, because using “tu” inappropriately can be perceived as a lack of respect or make the person you are talking to feel uncomfortable, even though the French are more tolerant with foreigners who do not speak the language well.

So here are some tips to help you understand more clearly:

  • We “tutoie” (comment tu t’appelles ? / tu vas bien ?) people who are close to us or who we know well: family and friends and also children and adolescents.  If we know them well or if using ‘tu’ is common practice, we can also use ‘tu’ for our work colleagues, in-laws, possibly our immediate superior according to the customs of the company.  IN GENERAL, to say hello we “kiss” the people we “tutoie”.
  •  We “vouvoie” (Comment allez-vous ? / Auriez-vous 5 minutes à m’accorder ?) in situations where we should maintain a distance from someone we do not know, show respect or courtesy, or when there is a hierarchy between people.  Therefore we “vouvoie” teachers, our superiors, strangers, elderly people, professionals (waiters, taxi drivers, salespeople,…), people in authority (the police, doctors,…), our neighbours during the first meetings or when we meet any other person for the first time.  To say hello we always shake hands with people we “vouvoie”.
  • And since the French are very humorous and self-deprecating we have the pleasure of sharing with you this sketch published by the Los Angeles Times which tells you in which situations you should “tutoyer” or “vouvoyer” the people around you: