Updated: Apr 18
Learning a new language involves mental activity, cultural awareness and a lot of fun! Starting with French you will discover that some words should be used only within a particular context because they create ‘social convention’.
This is the case with the very simple word
Yes, when you start with French, you very quickly discover the existence of ‘Tu’ and ‘Vous’. These 2 words mean ‘You’ but are not used in the same context. In fact, a misuse of ‘Tu’ and ‘Vous’ doesn’t affect the meaning of your sentence but instead creates familiarity with the speaker, which could, in some cases, be considered inappropriate.
Usually Anglophones tend to only use ‘tu’ which generates a more friendly way to interact with someone; however, in some circumstances, I have to admit I feel the ‘tu’ is somewhat funny, not to say uncomfortable to deal with… because it can make you feel someone entered your private sphere uninvited... Let me explain : )
A matter of context
We -French people- use ‘Tu’ for ‘You’ when we speak to persons we are close to in an informal context: family members, friends and children. You would not use ‘tu’ to interact with your boss or someone you have never met while asking for directions.
So basically, if you don’t know the person you are talking to, you would use ‘Vous’. It is a way to be polite, to show your respect for someone because the person is older or because of social position. It is also a way to create a formal context and therefore you are not entering the private psychological space of your speaker.
If you are a tourist visiting France, just use the ‘vous’ to anyone you talk to, unless you hear the person you interact with is using ‘Tu’.
With that said, a bit of subjectivity also applies, depending on how social you are and your age group too. Who do you consider being close to? Sometimes, the relationship with a neighbour you see every day is not considered ‘close’; For instance, you have never invited this person to your place nor do you have many shared experiences together such as leisure activities, holidays… Discussions are therefore formal and you will use the ‘Vous’ when greeting them.
A matter of age group
Teenagers and young people will definitely use ‘tu’ when interacting with same aged persons regardless of whether or not they know each other. Indeed, at this age, we enjoy interacting with peers and ‘vous’ would be seen as too weirdly formal.
However, teens and youth are expected to show respect and thus use ‘vous’ when talking to an older person they don’t know personally (teacher, neighbour…).
When it comes to kids, an adult will always use ‘Tu’. There is no formal context here (unless they are members of the royal family…). Once, someone said to my 10 year old son “Comment allez-vous?”. His reaction said it all… he starred at the lady and then looked behind him, just to check if there was an adult there… In fact, because of the ‘vous’ word, he did not feel he was the one being talked to; it was too formal and it surprised him to be considered as an adult whereas he was just a kid!
A matter of Social Class
Even in some families, we use ‘vous’! It is common in Aristocratic families for kids to use ‘vous’ to talk to their parents. However this is very rare and the 'tu' is the norm in pretty much all French families, individuals who grew up together (parents and children circle). More generally, French people interact with mother/father in laws using ‘vous’… a way to show respect.
A matter of Number
Finally, if you are talking to a group of people, just use ‘vous’ at all times, whatever age, whatever the context.