Vous (plural and/or formal ‘you’)
As an English speaker the choice between these two forms of “you”, when we only have the one, is a minefield for potential faux pas! A common misconception is that « tu » is used for talking to children/younger people and « vous » for talking to adults/older people or « tu » is for friends and « vous » is for strangers”. If this were the whole truth, the choice would be simple! The choice is far more complex and subtle, however. For example, there are situations where two adults meeting for the first time will automatically use tu, and cases where an adult will address a child as « vous ».
The situation is complex. Remember first and foremost « tu » is always used to address a single person. Also as a general rule:
The « tu » form is more likely to be used to address somebody in a similar social situation. Which means? All sorts of things, but things like:
- Your role in the current conversational context (shopkeeper vs. customer; teacher v student)
- Job status (junior vs. boss)
- Where the person you’re speaking to fits in your social network
- How well you know the person you’re speaking to
- Your attitude towards the person you’re speaking to (respect / disrespect)
So the choice of « tu » or « vous » has to do with age, but also to do with other things, and age isn’t always the overriding factor.
Some of my experiences include :
- I know of adults who address their inlaws even after 40 years of mariage with « vous ».
- I know of adults who use « vous » with their own parents!
- My Head of Secondary is French and will address our wonderful cleaners and concierge with « vous » but me with « tu ».
- In some High schools, pupils will be addressed with « vous », but we use « tu » for all our students (K-12).
- With the new social media there is a tendancy to greater usage of « tu » e.g. on forums with people you haven’t met.
If in doubt I use « vous » and will often be met with,
« on peut se tutoyer, non? »
(« we can address each other as ‘tu’, don’t you think? »)
In general I find Anglo Saxons a little less formal in addressing others than the French and I honestly think you need to be born French to have the right instinct for the choice between « tu » and « vous ». I mean, heck, in France it can be appropriate to greet someone by kissing and yet address them with the formal « vous »! I am sure I still make mistakes.
French Today is an excellent website for those wanting to brush up on their French and it contains a great podcast where the blog author recites a well-known poem by Voltaire called “Les Vous et Les Tu”.