Amuse-Bouche: “I Love You, May I Call You Tu?”

In Survival French, you learn that tu (“you” singular, called the familiar) is used with intimates, and vous (also “you” singular) with people you don’t know well. But whether to tutoyer or vouvoyer is a subtle and subjective game, and for an English speaker, it can be downright dangerous. For example, in French polars (detective stories or movies, AKA romans policiers, or films noir ), the flics (cops) call the filous (crooks) tu. However, you’d better say vous to Monsieur l’agent (a uniformed policeman). When a policier calls a suspect tu, it’s meant as flagrant disrespect.

Until the 17th century, tu and vous were used almost interchangeably. But gradually all upper-class people vous-ed each other, and tu, considered grossier (vulgar), was used only for servants and peasants. During the French Revolution, le tutoiement symbolized l’égalité (equality), and in 1793 it became obligatoire for all citoyens (citizens), whatever their profession or social position. That lasted about as long as the revolutionary calendar.

I used to think that if people didn’t call me tu they didn’t like me. “Not at all,” says Nathalie. “I was four when they wanted me to learn to vouvoyer, so my bossy big brother made me call him vous all the time, and it stuck. I still call him vous, although I call our older brother tu. It doesn’t mean anything. I love them both the same”.

For the average kid, things start out easy. Everybody calls kids tu, and children in turn call most people tu: family members, other kids, —even animals and God. (Should you talk to yourself, you also use tu.) To adults you don’t know, you say vous. It’s also a sign of respect used with teachers, other authorities and the elderly.

But complications arise. Your instit’ (instituteur or institutrice: grade school teacher) tells you to use her first name and call her tu. When you get to collège (junior high, not college), your prof starts calling you vous, and vice versa. If your parents know your teacher socially, they would call her tu at parties but vous on parents’ night. In college (université, also known as la fac ) it can go either way. You might call your professor tu in conversation and vous in the classroom.

In your 20s, all contemporaries are tu, except in a client-salesperson relation, where it’s “au feeling”. Adults call neighbors vous unless they’re friends. Professional contexts vary widely. Married couples might even call each other vous at the office. Some couples from an earlier generation — like Sartre and Beauvoir — always used vous with one another.  Well, of course we weren’t always there…  In the movies, when a couple disappears and comes back saying tu, it means they have become lovers.

Sometimes an older collaborateur (more chic these days than the word collègue) will call a younger one tu, reasoning: “You’re young enough to be my daughter”. But that’s problematic. The younger employee, who continues to say vous, may feel that a certain professional distance has been unilaterally eliminated.

When do you pass from vous to tu? Friends can’t tell me exactly how they decide. Traditionally it’s up to the older interlocutor to ask permission: “On peut se tutoyer?” If reluctant, the other continues using vous, acts embarrassed, or even says something like “Dites donc, on n’a pas élevé les cochons ensemble!” (Hey, we didn’t raise pigs together!). In a major disagreement, passing  the other way, from tu to vous, can mark the point of no return.

Sometimes you don’t know when the transition took place, you just find yourself saying tu. Regionally, les Provençaux say tu more easily than les Normands, although they’re reputedly far harder to get to know. And les vieilles familles (the social register) have murky rules: Bénédicte calls her parents vous, but they call her (and me) tu. They call each other vous, at least in public. Béné’s sister Roseline calls her mother vous and her father tu. Va savoir (Go figure).  Sorry, I mean allez savoir.

My advice? It’s better to over-vous than go too tu. Let your French friends decide when it’s time to get familiar—in the grammatical sense, of course.