Home » Language and Language related » The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in CANADA – Post 2 of 2 (#269)

The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in CANADA – Post 2 of 2 (#269)

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The last post provided an introduction and the EUROPEAN guide and tips to using tu and vous.   This post will give you tips to the CANADIAN use of tu and vous”.

The CANADIAN & QUÉBEC use of Tuand Vous

For those who are learning French and who may not be comfortable with our use of tu and vous, I would wholeheartedly say that you cannot go wrong by using William Alexander’s guide (above) until you become more comfortable with Canada’s and Québec’s unique usage.

In effect, the difference is not as large as you would think.  Even on this side of the ocean, people sometimes find themselves in situations where they judge it better to play it safe by using vous.

I will say this upfront:

When in doubt, it is always better to address someone with vous”.  You can always transition to tu at a later time if feel the situation calls for it.

However, it can be awkward if you tutoie someone, only to later discover that it may have been more appropriate to address the person with vous.

As a beginner to French, when in doubt, follow what others do.   When others are not around, you can always use vousto be safe (until you become culturally aware with our nuances of when to use tu).

On the bright side, if you do make a mistake (either way), don’t sweat it.   Native French speakers are more than used to the notion that this is not always a cut-and-dry matter, especially for second-language French speakers – and people always cut you more slack than what you realize (ie: people generally don’t sweat the small stuff 🙂 ).

If it makes you feel any better, even I had a very recent “mess-up” of my own.  I have a business in a field where people often tutoie (use tu).   Almost all of my Canadian & Québec business acquaintances address me with tu, right from the beginning.   But I usually wait for them to first use tu before I use tu with them (ie:  I will first address them with vous – unless they are younger).

Recently contacted a new business acquaintance for the first time.   I called the person by his first name (which is standard practice in my field), yet I used vous a few times.  However, out of habit, a few tu inadvertently slipped into what I was saying.   This new acquaintance obviously noticed that I called him by his first name, and that I inadvertently slipped in a few tu.

I know he noticed because he made a firm point of calling me monsieur(with added emphasis).  This was his way of sending me a stern signal that (1) he was not willing to have me call him anything but monsieur, and (2) there is no way he would allow a tutoiment (the use of tu).   We have been on a monsieur” / “vous ever since (and now there is no chance of making an error).    But yet 85% of any of my other business encounters in similar situations have either mutually started off as “tu”, or quickly moved to a tutubasis.

What are the CANADIAN rules?

The rules on this side of the Atlantic are not so cut and dry.   William Alexander’s European rules (from the last lost) can serve as a foundation from which we can branch out and make adjustments.

The following scenarios mostly apply if you are an adult speaking to another adult (someone over 18 or 20).

Eminent positions:

Like in Europe, “vous” is generally used on this side of the Atlantic to address people in eminent positions (Prime ministers, premiers, government ministers, mayors, police chiefs, CEOs, high ranking officials, etc.).  I’ll leave it up to you to decide what is an eminent position.  But when in doubt, revert to vous“.

“(Considerably) older strangers”

Older strangers are addressed as “vous” in Europe. But on this side of the Atlantic, there is much more wiggle room.  In that sense, I personally use vous, unless I’m engaging in a regular joint activity with that older person for the purpose of a mutual goal or pastime.

Example 1:

I, and many others, will often feel comfortable using tu with an older stranger when playing tennis, hockey, if engaged in a social club, a motorcycling club, a discussion group, if we met in a camp ground or boating activity, etc.   These are all circumstances which have brought us together through mutual interest, and in this sense, we’re “peers through interest”, regardless of age.

Example 2: 

However, if I encounter someone considerably older in a happenstance situation (ie: I have to ask a considerably older stranger or senior citizen a question in the middle of the street, I will use vous.   Other people may use tu, and they may be able to get away with it, but it just sounds more polite and respectful to use vous (a little more politeness in this world is always a good thing).

When deciding to use vousor tu to address an older person, you should look at the overall situation.  If you have met under random circumstances, and both of you are not engaged in the same common activity, you should ask yourself the following question:  Would I hold the door for this person if both of us were entering a building at the same time?

If the answer is “yes”, then I’d recommend you’d use “vous” (I personally hold the door for others, especially for the elderly, for those in need of assistance, and just to be a nice guy – even though other people may not).

Another good question to ask might be:  Would I give up my subway or bus seat for this person?  If the answer is “yes” (and I do hope there are numerous circumstances under which you would be polite enough to give up your seat to others), then you should use vousto be polite.

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This brings me to an interesting point…

If you are strangers (regardless of age), and you are polite enough to hold the door for such a person in regular circumstances, then just use “vous”.

General Rule of thum:  

Strangers + you’d hold the door for them under any other circumstance = Vous.  Pretty simple, isn’t it.

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Formal and semi-formal situations / activities:

This is less clear.   The use of vous” depends on how formal the activity is, and who you are addressing.   But there are some rough questions you could ask yourself when judging whether or not to use tuor vous.  Your choice of tu” or vous” will be based on a COMBINATION of answers to the questions below.

(I cannot stress enough that you have to look at a COMBINATION of factors which all fall on a SLIDING SCALE).

  • How badly do you want something from this person?

1

  • What is the degree of knowledge / expertise / power / social standing of the person who you are addressing?

1

  • What is the other person’s social and profession standing as opposed to you?

1

  • What is the degree of formalness of the environment in which you are interacting?

1

  • Have you ever met your interlocutor in person, or only on the phone or by letter?

2

  • Do you work closely together for a common goal?

3

  • Do you often see this person?

4

  • Does the other person tend to keep their distance from you (either physically or figuratively because of rank), regardless if you perhaps see them often enough?

4

  • Is your interlocutor a friend, a near-level peer, near-level colleague – by way of age, job, or role?

7

  • Is your interlocutor speaking Joual with you and others around you instead of more formal French?

    (And are you conversely comfortable addressing your interlocutor in Joual?)  Note:  This is an excellent indicator which often sets the tone for using tu” instead of vous“.  

8

All of the above are major factors which can play into whether or not you would use tu or vous”.   They are all on a sliding scale which is libel to change based on the situation in which you find yourself.

Generally speaking, in Québec and elsewhere in Canada, unless you are speaking with a stranger, you could start off with the loose assumption that there would be perhaps a 60% – 70% chance you would use “tu”.

But for strangers, remember the “door holding rule”.   If you’re polite enough to hold he door, then you should be polite enough to use “vous” (a natural reflex).

Before taking the plunge to move towards “tu”, first take into account all of the above factors and adjust your assumption accordingly.

EXAMPLES:

You want to order a drink in a bar = Tu.

You are in an informal environment.  There is no power-play situation, no social standing issues, no professional issues, and you’re in close proximity with the person.

You want to order a meal in a high-end, pricey restaurant = Vous”.

You and the waiter/waitress are in a very formal environment.  The waiter/waitress likely has a professional knowledge of the gourmet dishes and is expected to act in a very profession manner (which you would naturally reciprocate), and they are catering to you at a non-peer level.

If the restaurant is middle-of-the-road, some people may say tu”, whereas others may say vous”.

If you are not sure if the restaurant is formal or not, a good measure might be the formality of the language used by the waiter / waitress.  If they use Joual or informal French, that can be a good measure if you are in a tuor vous” environment.

You call a government call-centre = Vous”.

There is physical distance between you and the other person.   The person is expected to render a service in a formal, professional maner.  You have never seen the person before.

  • You ask a grocery store clerk to help you locate a specific item = Perhaps 60% of people would say “tu”, whereas perhaps 40% would say “vous”.

The setting is quite informal, fast-pace, and transitory.   You’re not expecting much from this person, thus the importance of the interaction is greatly diminished.  It is not an interaction based on a requirement of deep knowledge or education.  There are no-power dynamics, and thus you could both be peers in another life.

If you chose to say “vous”, it is because you desire to “up” your standard of speech a little.  (On a personal note:  I mostly say vous out of politeness, especially if I really want this person’s help.  But I would say tu if the clerk is younger than me, or if the clerk addresses me with a tu).

You are a client meeting with your lawyer / doctor over some issue (and you do not normally see your lawyer / doctor on a regular basis) = Vous”.

You definitely need something important from this person, and it is on a basis which requires a great deal of education on the part of the person with whom you are engaging.   Your interlocutor is a professional, in a professional setting, and they have a prestigious social standing.

You are the lawyer / doctor, and you are speaking with your client = “Vous”.

If you are in a position / role which is going to lead your client to address you as “vous”, then you should do the same.   It is a mutual, two-way street.   This also goes for other types of professional positions you may be in, such as a civil servant rendering services to the public, an accountant, a dentist, etc.

However, there are exceptions.   If there will be continuous meetings in a short period of time, and in which both sides will have to share honest and frank personal thoughts and impressions (such as a real-estate agent and their client), tu” may be perfectly acceptable.

You are in a bank = It depends.

If I go to the same bank on a constant basis, I may use “tu” with the clerks because I know full well that they know (or at least can see from my file) that I am a regular customer.

However, if I am with a teller who I do not know very well, or if I have a meeting (especially a first meeting) with the bank manager or loan officer, I would use vous(but I would not be surprised if we might transition to tuafter a couple of meetings… it is case by case).

You are a patient talking to a dental assistant, or you are a dental assistant talking to a patient (ie: the dental assistant is spending a good deal of time with you, working in your mouth also) = “vous” or tu”.

This is sort of interesting because you would likely use vous” if you were speaking to the dentist him or herself.

But because both you and the dental assistant are both “under” the higher positioned “vousvoied” dentist, and because you both will be spending a good chunk of time together (dental assistants often work quite a bit in your mouth), the situation may quickly move to a “tu” situation (both “kindred spirits” below the almighty dentist).

In other words, because you both are “pions” under the “overloard”, it could eventually be OK to get over yourselves, and to call each other “tu”.

Again, this is case by case.  (On the phone, when I make an appointment, I use “vous”.  But I may switch to “tu” in person when I see my interlocutor in person after spending time together).

You are visiting a new city, you are walking in the street, and you need to ask for directions. = tu or vous.

Age might play into this one.  Do you remember the “Holding the door test” I mentioned earlier?

Your interaction would be brief and on a one-time basis.  Thus you could ask yourself if you would hold the door for your interlocutor (or if you would give up your subway or bus seat for them).  If the answer is “yes”, then you could use vous.

I hold the door for most strangers (as I am sure most other people do too).  And thus I would use “vous”.

But then again (and unfortunately), other people may find the 20 seconds it takes to hold the door for a stranger is too large a sacrifice to make in life (it’s kind of sad reality) – and thus some other people might say tu (it’s a personal choice… but I, like most people, am a door-holding kind of guy).

You ask your secretary for something = “tu”.

You’re the overlord, so you have the right.  Plus, you work in close proximity, you see each other all the time, and your secretary likely knows many of your personal details.

You are speaking to your boss — and you are the secretary, clerk, employee, or subordinate = It depends.  Using tuor vousis not black and white.

If the difference in levels is not that great (ie: one level, or perhaps two), if the business is not very large (an SME), and if your boss is not Ted Rodgers, Kevin O’Leary, or J.D. Irving, then you may be able to use tuunder certain circumstances.

Age may or may not be a factor.  I was in my mid-20s and I had an employee who was 60 years old.  We were both on a tu basis.   We knew a good deal about each other, and we felt we could speak about issues a bit more frankly because of it.  However, there were only 2 levels which separated us.  If there were 3 or more levels, or if I had 100 employees, I would expect my 60 year old employee to likely address me as vous”, despite the fact that I was 35 years younger.

However, there are companies and organizations which have a more formal operating culture.  Be aware of this, and do as your colleagues do.

If you are new to a company, NEVER take the first initiative to “tutoie” your boss.   Follow the lead of your colleagues (if everyone “tutoies” the boss, then it is ok.  If some employees use tuand others use vous“, you would be safer to use vous” until you figure out your place in the overall structure of things).

Likewise, even if members of the public or those outside the organization “tutoie” your boss, that does not give you or other employees a license to do so.

Also, I have worked in environments where my immediate manager and I were on a “tu” basis, and in which my manager’s manager (2 levels higher) and I were on a “tu” basis, but anything higher was on a “vous” basis.  It turly really depends on the environment and the company / organization.

You are shopping in The Bay or Sears, and you are interacting with an employee = Vous”.

Large companies, with large employee pools, and those which focus on professional customer service are more likely to train their employees to treat their customers with respect and to use vous.

It ups the professional atmosphere, and you should respect the atmosphere.  I always use vous” in department stores, or other stores with higher-end items.

BUT I would be more inclined to use tu in smaller stores or in a less informal atmosphere.

As you can see, the bar of what constitutes a “professional” atmosphere is not that high (Sears and The Bay are not De Beers flagship store, after all).   Shopping mall store employees will often greet customers with vous, but customers will often respond with tu (which then sets the tone for the rest of the interaction).

Regardless, if I want to give the employee a little bit more “face”, then I still might use vous (and I regularly do).

You are making a fast, fleeting purchase in a very small, informal setting, such as a convenience store, gas station, pizza-by-the-slice restaurant, fast-food chain, etc. = “vous” or “tu”.

The situation is cursory and fleeting.  There is no formality.  Credentials or professionalism are not deal-breakers.

The staff have likely not undergone training with dictates they should address customers with vous.

The company does not likely have a customer-care culture which dictates the use of vous”.

Thus tu” can become the common default setting under certain circumstances – especially if the person is young (ie: a 15 year old high school student working at McDonald’s as a part-time job).

BUT remember the door holding formula?  (Maybe “vous” to be a bit more polite, ie especially for adults).

You are speaking with other colleagues = tu.

You work together towards a common goal.  You know each other.  You are peers.  You work in close quarters. There is no level-to-level pressure dynamics.

You are a high school student addressing your teacher or vice-versa. Take a guess.   Come on… take a chance.   What do you think?   Vous?  NOPE!  You actually use “TU”. 

I admit, this is a strange one… and I’ve heard there are some schools (mostly private or specialty schools) which are trying to break this habit.

It was a trend which started maybe 50 years ago, and has now become normal.   I suppose the assumption is that both teachers and students are working towards the same goal.  Both see each other every day and interact in an intimate matter, and thus have come to know each other very well.  There really is no physical distance, despite rank.   However, the school principal should be addressed as vous”.

Here is a bit of quirky side-note regarding this phenomenon:

This student / teacher trend of “tutoiement” does not really apply in Canadian provinces outside of Québec.

Growing up in French in Alberta, there would have been no way I ever would have called my high school teachers or university professors anything other than Monsieur or Madame ABC… We always used vousin Alberta.  I can only assume it is the same in other provinces outside Québec (such as Ontario, New Brunswick, and Manitoba)… but there may be exceptions I am not aware of.

Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

You join a social club or sports club/team = tu”.

You are both engaged in the same activity as peers, regardless of age, working for a common goal, and you will be spending time together.

I actually ran into this situation a few times over the last several weeks in Toronto.  I joined a couple of personal interest groups here in Toronto in which the main language was French.

A number of bilingual Anglophones and Allophones also joined the same groups.   Although most spoke fluent French, some had an intermediate level of French.  Those at an intermediate level addressed me vous” (even those in the same age category).  I responded with a friendly smile and said “We can “tutoie” because we are peers”.

Even though we were strangers, it felt awkward when I was addressed as “vous”.  We were all in a relaxed, informal environment.  We all shared the same goal (that of pursuing similar interests as members of the same social group).   Interestingly, there were two people from France in the same group.   They recently arrived in Canada, and they confided in me that it felt awkward for them to be addressed as “tu” in such a diverse group (their reaction was the exact opposite of mine — welcome to the the tu” / “vous” difference which exists between Canada and Europe).

Parents, family members, classmates, other relatives (regardless of age), friends, “potential” friends = tu”.

The relationships are close, and everyone knows each other well.  Blood and friendships = “tu”.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS:

As you can see, the use of tu is much loser on this side of the ocean than in Europe.  Also, because so many small nuances exist, it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to create a flow-chart for the use of tu and vous in a Canadian and Québec context.

With that being said, the concept is not so difficult.  If you spend any time in a French-dominant environment, you will catch on very fast (after all, we all deal with the same 10 or 15 main categories of people on a regular basis).

If you are only passing through a French-dominant region for a quick vacation, just stick to the European guide… you can’t go wrong.

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Alors, je “te” souhaite bonne chance avec “ton” parcours, et ton apprentissage au sujet de “tu” et “vous”

Après 269 billets de blogue, j’ai le sentiment que je partage une certaine connection avec mes lecteurs… alors, sous ces circonstances, il ne me dérange pas du tout de “tetutoyer, malgré le fait qu’on ne s’est jamais rencontré. 

Mais pour ceux qui viennent tout juste de visiter ce blogue pour la première, bon, là je “vous” salue.  🙂

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RELATED POSTS:  THE ART OF “LA BISE” (KISSING ON THE CHEEK) (2 POSTS)

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