The use of ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ adds to the difficulty of the French language. Being a foreigner, you will be forgiven for a ‘faux pas’ and admired for getting it right. In order to use ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ at the right time you have to rely on the social context.
‘Vous’ is always used reciprocally in a professional context: whether you are a customer or a professional person, you’ll both address each other as ‘vous’. It creates a polite distance. When complaining to a shopkeeper, or receiving poor customer service using ‘vous’ eases negative communication and emotions. When visiting your GP, your children’s teachers, talking to sales assistants, shopkeepers and so on, always say ‘vous’.
People say ‘vous’ when they meet someone for the first time, whoever it is, so the conversation will always start with ‘vous’. In less formal situations it could be talking to a new neighbour, approaching another mum at school or being introduced to someone new by a friend. When both persons get to know each other, one of them (usually the host, the one with higher status or the older person) may suggest to start using ‘tu’ as the relationship becomes friendlier.
‘Vous’ is used by the youngest as a mark of respect towards elderly people in professional situations: a pupil will always say ‘vous’ to his teacher. Even though the teacher says ‘tu’ to the students ( but the teacher will say ‘vous’ to the parents).
‘Tu’ is used by parents towards their children’s friends, but when parents meet parents it is always ‘vous’ unless they have become friends.
Within families, everyone says ‘tu’. This was not the case in the 18th century and occasionally older generations are still being called ‘vous’ by their grand-children.
‘Tu’ is naturally used between children, even when they don’t know each other, or within young communities and associations, where bonding is important.
So, will it be ‘tu’ or ‘vous’? In doubt, always say ‘vous’.
Text & photo copyright C.A. 2012