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No. 89: French People who want to be Tutoyer-ed

In addition to enjoying the luxury of hanging out with the slow speaking Martiniquais and the confidence boost they provide to my own speaking ability, I also love the fact that the people on this island want to be tutoyer-ed.

Yes. In case you don’t know, the French actually have a verb for calling someone by the familiar form of “you” (tu)tutoyer versus the formal form of “you” (vous)—vouvoyer. So you can actually ask someone if they would like to be “tu”-ed or “vous”-ed.


I always err on the side of caution and choose to “vous” everyone until I am told otherwise, or notice that they have begun “tu”-ing me. It’s my default position. The way I see it, it’s better to be formal than risk starting off on the wrong side of the rue with the French.

IMG_9212As English speakers, this phenomenon of “tu-ing” and “vous-ing” does not exist in our language, and sometimes I find it too elitist for my taste. I’m guessing my difficulty with the French way of sorting out who is a friend/family versus who is an acquaintance, is the same difficulty but in reverse for the French when they travel to Anglo countries. They must find it quite startling when we greet them for the first time as if we are chums and ask them gamely how they are, when, in fact, they really don’t want to share that information with a stranger.

But the Martiniquais are different. From the minute we met the family we are renting our house from here, it has been “tu”, “tu”,“tu”. When I asked our hosts about it, they simple said, “Mais bien sûr, nous sommes amis, comme de la famille!”

What a delightful change. In my American mindset it makes me feel at ease and makes me feel a greater sense of equality, and all and all just makes me feel good.


Mais bien sûr, nous sommes amis, comme de la famille! But of course, we are friends, like a family. 

rue: street

tu: you, informal

tutoyer: to use “tu” when speaking to someone

vous: you, formal and plural

vouvoyer: to use “vous” when speaking to someone


8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Just a note : this difference made between close or cool people with the others in the way of addressing them is not a “French” specificity . As far as I know, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese have one too ( the formal “vous” becoming lei, usted or voce ) . We can say it’s a Latin languages thing, provided it doesn’t exist elsewhere too .
    It may seem complicated for an Aglophone at the beginning, but I can tell you it allows nice subtleties and pleasures in communication .

    December 23, 2013
    • Thank you for your comment. I am familiar with “tu-ing” and”vous-ing” in German also with “du” informal, “ihr” informal plural, and “Sie” formal singular and plural (and always capitalized). If the Latin languages all have this distinction, it would seem us Anglophones just got lazy, huh? It does make things easier when you’re learning a language though. Do Asian languages also make this distinction? Thanks for reading and happy holidays.

      December 24, 2013
  2. well, I love the fact that in English there is no barrier. Have you ever tried to make sentences without using vous or tu, because you don’t remember if the person you’re talking to aloud you to say “tu” or “vous” ? Very disturbing

    December 28, 2013
    • I just default to vous, which maybe can be just as insulting to someone who wants to be tu-ed. Also the problem with that is that because I learned to “vous” first, even when I am tu-ing, I sometimes leave my verbs conjugated in the vous form. Sigh. It’s tough learning a language the older you get!

      December 30, 2013
  3. So much easier to ‘tu’! I had to review all of my conjugasions for vous when we arrived to métropole because I learned French in Guadeloupe and rarely used vous!

    January 6, 2014
    • Tu-ing feels more comfortable. I guess it is supposed to, right? I’m the opposite, I’ve learned (am learning) French in Paris–so lots of vous-ing conjugations are stuck in my head.

      January 6, 2014
      • It is better! More apropriate in more situations I feel. Courage!

        January 6, 2014

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