To Tutoyer or Not To Tutoyer

One thing I’ve not discussed much here is the whole matter of “to tutoyer or not to tutoyer.”

How can such a little word be so complicated?
How can such a little word be so complicated?

On the surface, the choice seems clear.  My handy Collins French-English dictionary says that tutoyer quelqu’un (or tutoyer someone) is “to address somebody as ‘tu’.”  Tu is simply “you” when you’re familiar with that person.

Which all sounds easy enough.  Tutoyer your friends.  Address everyone else with the more formal “vous”.

The whole tutoyer issue came to the fore again Saturday evening as we hosted a sea of six-year olds and their parents.  One invitee was our friend Laurent, a guy who’s more business than beach, with his wife and six-year-old daughter.  In his first few words to me, an innocent “tu” flew out of his mouth.  I didn’t understand what he’d said – and actually asked that he repeat himself.

Mais je m’excuse!” Laurent said kindly.  “Je vous ai tutoyé.”  Or as we French-speaking Anglos say, he tutoyer-ed (TOO-twoy-ehd) me.

I apologized immediately for not recognizing this sign of friendship and said something stupid, like that tutoyer-ing me is great.

Polly Platt has been teaching me the rules...
Polly Platt has been teaching me the rules…

So why the big deal about the you-word?  Because we Anglophones are taught it’s a big deal.  Polly Platt’s book French or Foe? is like DeBrett’s A–Z of Modern Manners for foreigners trying to understand the French.  In it she writes, “The whole subject of “tu” for “you” is a can of worms.  Don’t open it if you can possibly avoid it.”

Platt explains it quite simply.  “Tu is for children and dogs – and other relationships that don’t apply to you, a foreigner:  close family relatives and school friends.”

I can unpack this last line for my patch of the Côte d’Azur.  Here in Antibes, only some locals are truly locals.  The rest of the French residents are like foreigners.  Yesterday I had lunch with Olivier, Antibes’ head of communications, and at one point I asked him where he was from.

Le Dordogne,” he said and proceeded to explain exactly where that is.

So when did you move to Antibes? I asked.

Quand j’avais six mois,” he said.  At the ripe age of six months.

Yes, six MONTHS.  I triple-checked this statistic, but it was true, he didn’t consider himself a true Antibois because he wasn’t BORN here.

Put in this context, Polly Platt’s designation of me as a foreigner is pretty black-and-white.  Tu does not apply to me.  Ever.  The easy answer suits me fine.  Wretched French verb conjugations are different for tu and vous, so sticking with vous basically cuts my work in half.

But suddenly I was standing there in my own garden with Laurent, a friend for the past two-and-a-half years (most of which I’ve lived on a different continent), and he was opening this verbal corridor that’s supposed to be shut tight to people like me.  All our prior conversations, and my emails with him and his wife, had always been conducted in the polite, vous context.

...which can be more tortuous than the codes dictated by this British standard.
…which can be more tortuous than the codes dictated by this British standard.

Platt’s corollary to this vous-tu rule of engagement floated menacingly into my brain:  Once you start tutoyer-ing someone, there’s no going back – unless you want to make enemies.

I should mention that a handful of other friends I know in the same context – as parents of six-year olds who attended school with our Lolo a few years ago – jumped onto the tu train a while back.  To be sure, they were less formal sorts, more beach than business, and I’m sure I’ve been mixing my tu’s and vous’s with them ever since.  And honestly, who really cares but me?  Maybe I should just dive right in like Judy, my effervescent American friend who lives here.  “I mix them up all the time – by mistake!” she told me.  “But I can get away with it.  No one gets angry.”  Maybe I should pull the American card, launch my tu’s, end up with vous’s and worry about it later.

It works for some.  For me, I’ve simply tried to avoid the vous-tu divide with most French friends.  To start, I’ve tried to never use the word “you” when we speak or email.  Which, of course, can get a bit tricky.

Alternatively, the French have a pronoun “on” that’s completely impersonal but inoffensive.  It means “someone” or “anyone.”  On goes to the beach on a sunny day.  In polite company, on never helps herself to more than three varieties of cheese.  I always expect using on sounds pompous – like “One goes to the beach on a sunny day” – but the French don’t hear it that way.  Still, I can hardly summon on for every sentence.

My final trick is to dream up a way to implicate more than one person in my “you”’s.  “Vous” is the only way to say the plural “you,” whether for the closest relatives or complete strangers.  I often say vous les deux (you two) to a couple, shifting my eyes between them.

The easiest thing is to stick to vous until I hit direct confrontation.  Someday, I hope, I’ll become a full-on, two-you person, mastering twice the verb conjugations and donning them out liberally.  The biggest game now is remembering which friends have extended my right to tutoyer (because, of course, once I start I cannot go back), and which friends remain more comfortable with the proper vous (because I, the foreigner, am ill-equipped to make the first breach of this boundary).

Standing in the garden amid the flock of children and their parents, Laurent was hardly apologetic about his foray into the tu world.  “Nous sommes des amis maintenant!” he said.  We are friends now!  And I must admit, hearing him say this felt pretty ace.

As the evening rolled on and I recovered from my cultural fumble, Lolo bounced by me, giggling with a six-year-old friend.  Her soprano voice rang clear, “Est-ce que tu veux nager?”

“Do you (tu) want to go swimming?” she asks.  It’s too easy when you’re six.

2 thoughts on “To Tutoyer or Not To Tutoyer

    1. Thanks for commenting, Paul. I’ve not read this post in ages and you’ve brought back some happy memories. Bon courage as you tackle this tricky subject.

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