Not knowing when to use the formal ‘vous’ or the informal ‘tu’ can lead to some tricky situations – particularly when meeting your partner’s parents.
I made a huge mistake after I started dating Brian when I met his parents. I remember the day too. I was visitng France for the first time, and we were sitting around the table gorging on Aperol and chips while laughing and having ‘what’s France like compared to America’ conversations. I was standing next to Bri’s mom, and nonchalantly swirled my drink around while exclaiming, “Mais, oui, c’est evident, mais tu sais.” Joce looked at me with a strange eye, I didn’t realise it then but I was starting on a journey of irreversible grammatical errors. The rest of the summer I filled with tus mirroring their language and following Brian.
I didn’t realise my mistake for another year, until I finally moved to France. Bri’s grandmother was over for dinner and we were eating when I noticed Joce motioning to Madame Corrieri and saying, “Voulez-vous un autre tranche du boeuf?” I stared for a moment and it sunk in. Aghast I leaned over to Bri and said, “Omg. Am I supposed to be using vous with your parents? Like since the beginning?” He looked at me and nodded, like, duh! I was aghast. I didn’t know how to discuss this with his parents and be like, “So can we go back to the vous or is it too late?”
Luckily, I have understanding French in-laws, and when I finally knew enough French to be able to make conversation on my own I posed the question: “C’est ok si j’avais toujours appelé toi un tu, pourrais-je changer?” She laughed and said, “C‘est pas nécessaire.” I nodded.
Thus, I embarked on the horrible journey of deciding when to use the tu and when to use the vous. I’ve sort of broken down some social rules.
When to use the tu
- With other students that are in your class.
- With close friends or people that are your age.
- Anyone who is younger than you.
- When someone has requested it, a true French social thing: Tu peux m’appelle tu.
When to use the vous
- Professors or bosses.
- Colleagues at work.
- Anyone who is older than you, at least by a generation.
- Anyone you meet in a store. Anyone.
- Parents/grandparents of your French boyfriend.
- Addressing a group of people.
It can be incredibly annoying, as all those verb forms change and if you make the social mistake of calling someone a vous when they are clearly a tu, you risk looking too formal. And vice versa. Just don’t call your boyfriend’s parents tu. That is a bad and irreversible mistake.