French lessons Paris : VOUS vs TU
English makes the distinction between formal and familiar relationships with word choice, varying grammatical structures, and optional titles. French does all of this too; it just adds another layer of complexity with two second person pronouns. So how do you know which one to use?
The informal, singular subject pronoun tu (listen) indicates an intimate, amicable, and/or equal relationship between two people, and as such it is used with family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and classmates. Kids always use it with one another, as do most teens, even when meeting for the first time. Likewise, adult friends of friends often use it upon being introduced. Tu is also used when talking to God, children, animals, and inanimate objects. Using tu with someone who doesn’t fit any of these categories is likely to cause offense.
The formal subject pronoun vous (listen) indicates a respectful and/or distant relationship. It’s used between strangers and in professional situations, such as doctor-patient and clerk-customer. It’s also used in professional and academic hierarchies, like boss-employee and professor-student. Using vous with someone who doesn’t fall into one of these categories demonstrates a certain distance, or worse.