too polite or not enough

Tatyana Markovtsev politeSo did you ever find yourself calling someone “vous” instead of “tu” and vice versa?

Knowing when to formally address a person and if you should do the shift to “tu” can put you in quite a pickle!

Check out the article below to find out all about how to say “you” respectfully in French, and watch the video for some French worth picking!

(This week: verb CUEILLIR – to pick)






This is the 3rd episode of our series of articles regarding French manners and etiquette.

The French, like all people, share a number of codes and conventions that govern individual behavior in social life. This system of codes is called politeness, « savoir vivre », good manners or etiquette. These codes of behavior facilitate relationships between individuals, they help to create social harmony. They also define what is expected, allowed or prohibited in certain situations, dictate the obligations of each party to the social hierarchy, between men and women (gallantry) . Often, they also help “locate” an individual in relation to the standard: ignorance or knowledge of certain protocols in fact reveal a lack in education, or the contrary, qualities.

Which one do you pick: tu or vous?

(Vous êtes gentil, je t’aime !)

When you enter a room where there are people, it is customary to say « Bonjour » on arrival, but it is not mandatory to shake everybody’s hand. The French are more formal when meeting, they generally associate a gesture – shake hands – with speech. If this is a first meeting, we can say: « Enchanté », « Ravi de vous rencontrer », or simply tell your name: « Bonjour ! Marcel Duchamp. ».

A simple pronoun and verb form make a world of difference in interpersonal relationships in France.

The shift from « vous » (formal) to « tu » (informal) is a common ritual that marks the evolution of a relationship.

Usage of the pronoun « tu » actually means more closeness, more privacy, less formality in contacts, communication and even topics of conversation. This change is immediately noticeable for each individual, a kind of mental and physical relaxation occurs that transforms how to act and behave. The shift from « vous » to « tu » is done more easily between people of the same sex than the opposite sex; age also plays an important role. This shift is often formalized by a question as follows: « On pourrait se tutoyer maintenant, ce serait plus simple ? » or « Ça vous dérangerait si on se tutoyait ? »

There are a large number of cases of spontaneous « tu »: young children, for example, talk to adults using the pronoun « tu » until they learn – when they are about 7 or 8 – to distinguish circumstances where they must make a choice. Moreover, same age teenagers use « tu » spontaneously, without distinction of sex. Members of the same family use « tu »; except in exceptional cases today, the children never tell « vous » to their parents. The spontaneous « tu » is also customary in some circles, clubs, associations; this has the effect of strengthening the sense of unity and belonging.

In general, you address with « vous » people you meet for the first time, the supervisor, an older person than yourself. There are some cases where a person is authorized to say « tu » , while his partner uses « vous »: a teacher talking to a young student, an adult to a young child, an elderly person addressing a much younger person. This situation does not allow the person to « tutoyer » his interlocutor in return, showing that the formal mode is not only a mark of formality, but also an indicator of social hierarchy that allows to show his respect.

In a first meeting, choosing between « vous » and « tu » is not always easy, there are circumstances where you may hesitate, and where a solution must be found verbally. Even if the first contact is warm, it is safer to use « vous » until the interlocutors find a protocol.

In general, it is the oldest, or one that is in a supervisory position, or one the person who welcomes you who will decide: « On pourrait peut-être se dire tu? »

In the southern regions of France and in Spain or Italy, to say « tu » at the first meeting is much more frequent than in the north, where the spontaneous familiarity often is perceived as aggression.

The use of « vous » has long prevailed in the French society, until the late 18th century. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of “Emile: or, On Education” (1762), just before the Revolution, recommend routine familiarity in the family. Today, the use of the familiar is increasingly common, especially among younger generations. Generally attributed this development to the influence of the English language, in which the pronoun “you” is seen as the equivalent of the French « vous », which is not necessarily true.

Definitely a challenge for the born English speaker, and this habit becomes second nature only by exposing yourself to the French language and culture.

Immersing yourself in the culture, and having a guide to whisper in your ear, like the Jiminy, the Cricket, the right way to approach people, is an ideal way to deal with these two little buggers. You don’t want to offend your newly made French friends, or to cause unwanted amusement if you are overly polite. You want to feel comfortable, safe, even admired by the French who hear too much English from tourists.

But you are not a tourist – you use the J’Ouellette® Method to become yet another example that reinforces the fact that English speaking people around the world work really hard to learn other languages and cultures. You are an international citizen who respects other cultures and their language, especially French, because it touched your heart in an unique and unforgettable way.

(Inspired from


Immerse yourself as you FINALLY reach your dream of becoming bilingual, learn to speak Parisian French and BREAK your language barrier!


Now it is your turn!

Tell us in the comments below, how well do you master using “vous”?


Want to learn French to enjoy Paris?
Create a solid foundation for conversation,
master pronunciation, and travel the World,
using the comprehensive J’Ouellette® Intensif

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Drop me a line and I’ll show you how I can help you – with your challenges, your level and your goals – to rapidly expand your vocab so that you can attend that client meeting, even if it’s scheduled for next week, and impress them by speaking their native language!


À la prochaine,




Photo credit: Tatyana Markovtsev, A.G. photographe

3. Are you French-manners ready? (too polite or not enough?)

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