I suppose you've already experienced moments of hesitation or embarrassment when addressing someone and not knowing which one to use between "tu" and "vous".

In English there is no equivalent. The French "vous" remains a real headache for many foreigners who are learning French. But also for some French people, because the use of "tu" is becoming more widespread. 

In what situations can "tu" be used? What is the limit between politeness and disrespect? Can you use "tu" with your father-in-law, your boss or someone you don't know?



Tu or vous ?



Who should I use "Vous" with and in which situations?

In general, we say "vous" to adults: older people, our directors or bosses, teachers, people we don't really know. Sometimes people will not say "vous" but "tu". Don't panic if an older person, your boss or your teacher says "tu" to you, this is normal. However, this does not mean that you can use "tu" with them.

You use "vous" with people you meet for the first time. When you are on the train, subway or in a public place and you don't know the person.

In shops, we also use "vous". When you go shopping, whether it's in a clothing store, grocery store or bakery.



Who should I use "vous" with and in what situations?

With friends and family :

We use "tu" especially with friends and family. "Tu" are normally reserved for people with whom we are close.

Apart from that, in some upper middle-class families where members use "vous" between each others, but, in general, with family and friends, we use "tu".

 ⚠️  In France, we use "vous" with our family-in-laws. You must say "vous" to the parents of your boyfriend or girlfriend / husband or wife. It's a mark of politeness and respect


With colleagues :

At work, you can use "tu" with your colleagues that you get along well.

Don't use "vous" the first day of work with your colleagues.

No, at that point in time, they fall into the category "people you don't know yet". You must use "vous" with them.

Once you know them better and you get along with them, the use of "tu" will take place naturally or they will offer to do it. 


With young people and kids :

Most of the time, young people use "tu" directly (until university, we use the familiar form without any problem for a young person we do not necessarily know).

The children use "tu" with each other. An adult will use "tu" with kids even if a kid always say "vous" to adults (except if it's a member of his or her family).


How can I be sure that I can use "tu" with someone

First, try to determine whether you are in a formal or informal situation. 

A formal situation refers to a situation where form must be respected. It is a formal situation where there are codes that must be followed, such as at work, in an administrative establishment or in a store.  

An informal situation is more flexible, more friendly. There are no specific codes to follow. It is a situation where we can be more "ourselves".

Secondly, to use "tu" with a person, you have to wait until he or she offers it to you.

For example, you often speak with a neighbor who is older than you are. After a certain amount of time to make this conversation less formal, she may offer to use "tu" with you. 

In general, you never refuse this proposal (it's not polite to refuse).

The best solution is always to use "vous" with a person and to wait until he or she offers you to use "tu".

Using of "vous" = security.



Formal or informal in French



In a nutshell :

  • Friends

  • Family

  • Kids or teenager

  • Girlfriend or boyfriend

  • Colleagues (if there is a mutual agreement to use "tu")


  • Unknown person or person we know little about

  • Seniors

  • Professionals (colleagues, managers, clients...)

  • Merchants

  • Persons representing the law or authority (police, gendarme, teachers...)



Bonus : mind map : When use "tu" or "vous" ?

Bonus : mind map : When use "tu" or "vous" ?


Did you understand ? Test your knowledge !