French language dilemmas - when to drop the vous and get friendly

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French language dilemmas - when to drop the vous and get friendly
Is your workplace formal or informal? Photo: Photo by You X Ventures o"

Now it's basic French that 'tu' means you in a friendly or informal situation and 'vous' is a polite (or plural) form of you - but how do you know when it's appropriate to tutoyer?


Using tutoiment or vouvoiement is not a simple matter even for French people, particularly in the workplace where more casual attitudes are leading to the increasing use of tu.

Yet even as tu is more widely used, there are still distinctions.




Informal workplaces like Google have contributed to the decline of vous in the workplace. Photo: AFP
Alex Alber, professor of sociology at the University of Tours has published research showing that although women very rarely refer to their immediate superior at work at tu, seven out of 10 men do.
There are also differences between public sector and private sector workplaces, and between manager and workers.
Writing in Sociologie du travail magazine, he said: "It is first and foremost a practice of men and managers in the private sector.
"Only one woman in ten is on familiar terms with her boss. Yet seven out of ten men are.
"In addition, executives use tu with their supervisor when he or she is also an executive and often male. Employees, both male and female, prefer vous with their supervisor. So this trend is not as widespread as we tend to think."
We asked French people from a wide range of ages and experiences and although most of them agreed that the use of vous is decreasing over time, they tended to apply very different rules to their own use of tu and vous.

For instance, Melanie, a 42-year-old researcher, the concept of age is essential when it comes to tutoiment and vouvoiement. "We should always use vous with people older than us, and we tend to used tu the youth." 

"Yes, maybe tutoiment is now more often used, now we used it more with people who are 30 or 40-year-old, but this is difficult to generalise because you still hear vouvoiment in the streets."


"But, when it comes to the workplace the rule is different, it depends on the relationship you have with either and both your colleagues and boss, and the place you work in.

"For example it depends on the relationship that I have with that person, in my case, since I work in different places and sometimes I use vous with a supervisor that I am not familiar with, and others I think of having a closer relationship with and in that case I use tu.

"However, it is always preferable to use vouvoiment with people in the beginning and then depending on where you want to take the relationship you either change to an informal pronoun or not. The vous always helps establish your place and relationship with that person."

As for Laurine, the case is a bit different, for her, an 18-year-old waitress, and tu is most of times used. 

"For me, if I don't know a person I always use vouvoiment , and when I'm closer with someone I use tutoiment. I don't know why or what's the reason but tutoiment is more commonly used between people, I don't think we use vouvoiment now as much as it was used before.

"People feel more comfortable with tu and that's why in my work place, between me and the other waiters and waitresses and even my supervisors we always use tu, it makes the work atmosphere more chill and comfortable."    


The French spoken in Canada can be a lot less formal, said Alice. Photo: AFP

Alice, a 34-year-old cinema script writer who has previously lived in Montreal, Canada, said that tu is much more frequently used in Canada. 

She said: "I lived in Montreal for two years and I found that tutoiment there is much easier and more frequently used, whereas in France you always have a hesitating moment where you don't know which to use. Vouvoiment is decreasing now that you see more people are using tutoiment with each others if they are from an approximate age.

"I personally think tutoiment is the easier option, but I don't feel comfortable using it with a stranger, unless they were younger than about 15.

"When it comes to the work place I feel it's better to use tutoiment with people in your office, be it with your colleague or supervisor, but that case cannot be generalised - some supervisors care about this and care about appearances and hierarchies. In my work we have a friendly relationship so we use tutoiment with everyone"

 Tattoom, a 29-year-old caterer, said that to use vouvoiment is a sign of respect, therefore she never used tutoiment with someone she had no previous connection or relation with. 

"I think people are not longer using vouvoiment as much as before, I am not saying that it's disrespectful for me, but I do feel annoyed when someone use tutoiment with me while they don't know me ." 

"As for the work place, the big companies care more now about the comfort of their employees and that's why I feel that tutoiment is more used than before, to give the impression that the company is a family, a unit. But when I was working in a company, even though I worked there for a long time, I never used tu with my boss." 

Bouthayna, a 19-year-old agent, said: "I always use vouvoiment with people I don't know, no matter what their age is. 

"However, this is no longer taught in schools, in my brother's case, he is 16 and he never uses vouvoiment which is the school's fault because they don't teach it to the youth like before. As for work, I always use vous with my supervisor, it's a hierarchy relationship and a sign of respect, but with my colleague I use tu." 

Alexandre, a 46-year-old trader agrees that that vous is a sign of respect and hierarchy that should be always used with strangers and people you don't know well, no matter their age. 

"I have been working with the same supervisor for 10 years and despite that I always use vouvoiment with him, it is a sign of respect. That being said, I use vous with everyone I meet, except for family and friends, and I expect to get the same respect in return.

"For instance, if someone stops me in the streets to ask me something and they use tu with me, I would directly tell them 'hey you don't know me, you can't use tutoiment with me!'"

And finally if you're still confused here's a handy and amusing flow chart.


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Anonymous 2020/08/12 18:39
TYPOs EVERYWHERE!!! <br /><br />Alex Alber, professor of sociology at the University of Tours has published research showing that although women very rarely refer to their immediate superior at work a*s***t tu, seven out of 10 men do.<br /><br />"We should always use vous with people older than us, and we tend to used tu *** the youth." <br /><br />Alexandre, a 46-year-old trader agrees ***that** that vous is a sign of respect <br /><br />Look, if you cannot proof your work I am not going to read or pay anymore!!!!!!!!!!!!<br />
Anonymous 2019/08/06 18:07
I don't agree with saying that if you want to show respect, you need to use "vous". I respect people even when I'm using "tu". Using "vous" is quite old fashioned, in my opinion.
Anonymous 2019/08/06 13:34
My neighbor addresses her dog Dinah using vouvoiment. Sign of dog being subordinated its master?

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