Home About France Culture & History You say Vous and I say Tu: Let’s call the whole thing off
Last update on November 11, 2019
Written by Clair Whitmer

Have you ever felt rejected by a pronoun? Well, here’s a full-proof technique for protecting our fragile foreign egos forever from this particular grammar gaffe.

Like most households with a six-year-old girl in residence, my house is also populated by a motley crew of nude dolls. Why can’t they ever keep their clothes on when it seems like I spend a disproportionate amount of my time squeezing them into their ridiculous little outfits? It’s one of the modern world’s great mysteries, but not—and aren’t you glad?—the subject of this column.

Some of these dolls, when animated by the six-year-old, are strictly English speakers; some speak French. Most speak a pidgin only comprehensible to other Franco-American Barbies. The point of this story is to show how the whole biculturalism thing shows up in my daughter’s games.

Playing shopkeeper

She also likes to play storekeeper. But this is a French-only game for her; in fact, the primary purpose, it seems, is to practice vouvoiement as in, “Bonjour Madame, qu’est-ce que vous voulez? Vous me devez €100 pour cette pomme.” (She’s very floating price index, my girl is; it must be her American genes.)

What’s interesting here is that she uses this game to practice the vous/tu differential, a form of address that, obviously, doesn’t have an equivalent in English and is a linguistic, emotional and psychological reflex that French children simply absorb. My daughter needs practice because, goodness knows, she’s not going to be learning it from me.

This is because I run about 50/50 on calling the vous/tu choice, meaning I manage to escape awkward moments about half of the time.

The problem for me is that I now speak French well enough that I’m aware of any gaffes. I used to be blissfully ignorant of my mistakes and simply happy and grateful for having successfully conjugated any verb in any tense. Ah, the good old days…

Vous and tu

For example, long, long ago in a galaxy far away known as My Youth, I immediately tutoy’ed (yes, I made that up) my now in-laws the very first time I met them.

Of course, I knew the rules: vous = strangers, older people, the boss, the teacher, and anyone who had any power over my visa d’étudiant. Tu=friends, family members, children, dogs and anyone of intimate acquaintance. But, to me, the parents of the man I was spending all my weekends with obviously fell under the ‘intimate acquaintance’ clause.

But it turns out that ‘people you’re acquainted with thanks to the fact of being intimate with someone they’re related to’ do not automatically qualify.

It was only later that I learned my jump-to-the-tu had inspired bemused smiles and the first of many subsequent summonings of the foreigner-free-pass-faux-pas-exemption, which, to me, counts as the most beautiful expression of French exceptionalism, that is, French people making exceptions for me.

Noticing your own mistakes

The vous/tu distinction is still tricky for me—the problem is that I’m now sufficiently integrated to notice my own mistakes and other people’s pronoun slights and, occasionally, fret about it.

I had a job once where the boss had specifically forbidden me to tutoyer the clients, which was fine, except that many of them tutoie’ed me. And I didn’t like having to accept the position of supplicant all the time: what am I, five years old?, that they get to say Tu and I have to reply with Vous? I had become French enough to be annoyed but not French enough to figure out how to establish my equality in some other way that wouldn’t get me fired by the stickler boss.

And then there have been the times when I attempted Tu and then had to abort the operation, like that time chez la coiffeuse.

I always tutoie the woman who cuts my hair, so it seemed natural to me to also tutoie her partner—a woman my age who is always there and with whom I was chatting while sitting under the dryer with bleach all over my head, a situation that seemed intimate enough to me. But no, after about two minutes with me tutoi‘ing determinedly like an overfriendly puppy, she stuck with the Vous—so I backtracked. My French husband says this is the right thing to do in these situations: just retreat and, when possible, try to never see the person again in your lifetime.

But how strange it felt: it was the verbal equivalent of offering your hand and having the other person refuse to shake it. Except that we were both able to pretend it hadn’t happened at all, which is either an advantage or a disadvantage, I can’t decide.

Measuring up to expectations

This isn’t as strange, however, as another phenomenon that I haven’t experienced personally but have seen on TV—mostly in old movies—where lovers vousvoient each other. How is it possible to be sleeping with someone and not call them Tu? Does it mean you don’t intend to sleep with them again?

That the other person didn’t measure up to your expectations? That you slept with them, but feel guilty about it because you went to a Jesuit school and so have become an adult who sleeps around but secretly hates themselves for it? My husband is completely incapable of explaining this one to me, although, I’m relieved to report that, to him, I’ve always been a Tu.

Nowadays, in my daily order of business, I’ve got it straight in my head that these people are vousvoi’ed even though I see them regularly, some of them every day, and have done for a long time: the secretary at the mairie, my kids’ teachers, my kids’ doctor, the postman, the woman at La Poste, the boulanger’s wife, and all neighbours who are retired.

But here are my question marks: what about the neighbours our own age whose kids spend half their free-time at my house climbing my trees and are therefore potential subjects of the responsibilité civile clause of my insurance policy? The other mothers of the girls in my daughter’s dance class? The parents who have invited my kids to their kids’ birthdays and then invite me to have a coffee after? If you’ve spent money on someone’s kid, does that make them a Tu? What about people I’ve never met before but are obviously great pals with friends of mine who I tutoie? Does the Tu transfer from friend to friend, like a virus?

Up until now, I’ve generally waited until the other person crosses the Tu bridge first. But I’m tired of this timid approach that always grants the other person the authority to make the pronoun decision.

I want to be an intrepid French-speaking foreigner! I want to be boldly bilingual! I want to take command of my own pronoun usage! Besides, if I start getting it all too right too often, they’ll stop making exceptions for me and I can’t afford that—I want a lifetime subscription on that faux pas free pass.

Be as eccentric as possible

So, my advice to myself and others, is to be as eccentric as possible at all times, even if it means dressing funny to demonstrate your essential otherness and freedom of all pronoun restrictions. (This has always been my technique for cooking too; once people figure out you know how to cook anything at all, they keep expecting you to show up with a dish when you’re invited for mealtimes. To avoid this, pretend to burn everything or adopt strange dietary restrictions like only eating raw food—then you’re off the hook forever.)

After all, the French love eccentrics. You only get in trouble when you give the impression of knowing and caring about the rules but then not applying them correctly. But if you just act completely off-kilter all the time, then nobody can hold you to any standards and they’ll all tell you it’s part of your charm. It’s the only way really.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Barbies won’t keep their clothes on: if they just did what they were told and stayed in their little outfits, nobody would ever play with them.