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January 27, 2011

The tu/vous conundrum

Besides continuously screwing up gendered nouns and badly mangling verb conjugations, the hardest thing about the French language for me is knowing when I should use the formal "you" (vous) and when it's OK to switch to the more familiar version (tu).

Rather than offending someone by getting more fresh than was appropriate, when I first got here I vouvoie-d everyone. Old ladies. My fellow professors. My students. Dogs. Eventually I realized it was slightly ridiculous for me to be so formal with teens 10 years my junior and most breeds of canines. I kept it up with everyone else-- even if they addressed me as tu-- until they specifically told me to stop. By that point, though, it had become such a habit that some people have specifically told me to stop several times, and I still slip up.

"Qu'est-ce que vous allez--MERDE!-- tu vas faire ce weekend?" comes out of my mouth all day on Friday, often accompanied by a hang-dog expression and shame waves radiating off me.

The worst is when I feel like I know someone well enough to use tu, but I'm afraid to do so until I get the go-ahead. I talk with the secretaries at school about the weather almost every single day, which I feel has made us really close. But I'm sitll vous-ing them and will continue to do so, possibly until forever o'clock. There's an older woman with whom I've had weekly conversations in French since November who, in fact, still calls ME "vous"! I want to tell her to stop because it feels really weird for someone more than twice my age to treat me with that much respect, but what if she doesn't reciprocate?

Just tu* me now.

*That's a joke, because tu's homophone tue means "kill." But I've been told things aren't funny when I have to explain them, so it's OK if you didn't laugh.


  1. Yeah, this conundrum gets me as well! Apparently most administrators at school are always vousvoyer'd by everyone, at least that's what I've heard. There are some teachers with whom I chat frequently in a friendly way that I have to hold back the "tu" and mentally correct myself with "vous." It's embarrassing to ask, especially after you've known a person for a while!

    If it's any consolation, I've heard French people say it can be tricky/awkward for them, too.

  2. True , it can also be a problem for us French people , as there are no strict rules but a personal approach .

    Why don't we have : " vtu or tvous " ?!!