In languages that have both familiar and formal forms of 'you', how do you when to use each?

Actually, what I’m really interested in is how you know that it’s OK to change from the formal to the familiar? And, when you first do so, what’s it like? Awkward, natural, full of trepidation, never a problem, . . . ? (BTW, I’m referring in this thread only to adults. I understand, or at least I think I do, that it’s almost always appropriate to use the familiar form with kids.)

I guess I’m thinking of a few prototypical situations. One is when you’re with a member of the opposite sex (or same depending on your preferences ;)). Say you go out on a first date - is that already grounds to use the familiar form? If not, when do you change over? How do you know it’s OK to do so?

Another would be with colleagues. I assume you don’t use the familiar form the first time you meet them. How do you know when it’s OK to switch to the familiar?

What happens if the person for whom you change to the familiar form is clearly offended? Do you apologize and/or simply switch back to the formal immediately?

Do people sometimes tell you right-off-the-bat to use the familiar form with them, much as someone might say, “None of this Mister business, call me Bob”.

Of course I’m not expecting you (tu or vous, du or sie?) to answer all my questions, but I think you can see what I’m getting at.


It’s like being on a first-name basis with someone. You just develop a social radar for situations in which it is and is not acceptable to call someone by his or her first name, and while it *can *be awkward in some settings, it’s not usually a problem. Also, I don’t think a lot of people on the receiving end really care either way, and if they do they often prefer not to be addressed in the formal way because it makes them feel old. I’ve never had anyone in any language that distinguishes between formal and informal second person singular (and I speak five of those) tell me that I should be using the formal form when talking to them.

It’s not even about languages. In Spanish, for instance, the formal is used almost all the time in countries like Venezuela, even when speaking to children, while it’s really uncommon in Spain, unless talking to somebody extremely old and important.

Like Švejk said, it’s largely social radar. Using tu vs. vous (or ti vs. chi, etc.) is like choosing to be polite in English as well–if you’re addressing a stranger in a store you might say something like “Could you tell me where to find the milk?” whereas if you’re shopping with a friend or spouse you’d say “Where’s the milk?” Do you consciously analyze your relationships with people to decide how you’re going to phrase the question or does it more or less just happen?

Bitter experience.

There are some approximate generational norms in different cultures. For instance, in my experience young French people would pretty much expect to use the informal “tu” with people of their own generation, whether they were personally acquainted with them or not. But AFAIK no language has clear and rigid rules about this; you just have to know.

And don’t get me started on Hindi, which has three forms of the second person singular “you”: formal (“ap”), familiar (“tum”), and intimate/contemptuous (“tu”). (“Tu” is intimate when you use it with someone you’re actually close to, but an offensive insult when you use it to a stranger or acquaintance.) It’s really cool to hear fluent Hindi speakers having an argument with an acquaintance that gradually gets more heated and aggressive, because they slide seamlessly from the polite “ap” to the less respectful “tum” to the contemptuous “tu”, sometimes all in the same outburst! :cool:

I’ve been waiting for ye english-folk to loosen that stiff upper lip and adress us as “thou” again.


There’s no hard and fast rule for when you can go from the formal to the informal one - you just instinctively get “it” as you grow up.

Trial and error, and feeling. It’s something you know, but it’s hard to explain. On a date, though, I’d say the “tu” (familiar) is de rigueur, since you wouldn’t invite someone you’re not familiar with on a date.
However, say, if you were trying to pick up a random chick in a bar, and you were being polite, you’d probably start the conversation with a “vous” and switch over to “tu” later, when you feel like you guys are hitting it off. Sometimes with a blunt “on se tutoie ?” (= “do you mind if we use the familiar from now on”), or if you’re smoother, just doing it.

Same thing, it’s all feeling. It also depends on what kind of colleagues they are - for example, when I worked at a TV station where the average age was 28, using “vous” at all would have been considered weird, everyone was on a familiar basis. OTOH, try to “tu” your average stuffy doctor or bank manager, and you’ll distinctly hear butt cheeks being forcefully clenched :slight_smile:

Both, or only the latter. But the thing is, while “tu”-ing someone you shouldn’t be is oafish, insisting someone use the formal pronoun is something of a jerk move, to. Kind of like saying “That’s MISTER Jones to you”.

Sure. In fact, it’s the same thing. Going from “vous” to “tu” is essentially the same thing as going from “Sir” to “Mike”.

Not a problem. Would you prefer “Thou knave” or “Thou varlet”?

But every language that I know of has similar issues of formality or politeness level: even English. It can be use of honorifics, use of family name versus given name, choice of word for “you”, or a variety of other linguistic choices. And the rules vary over time, and vary from place to place.

Very interesting. Thanks. I wish I had something to add to this thread beyond my curiosity.

I remember my college instructor bringing some German exchange students to our class so that we could practice conversations. After 5 minutes, one of the girls stopped us and said we should us “du” (informal) instead of “Sie” (formal). I guess we were just used to talking to our instructor in formal German.

There are probably two things going on there:

(1) language usage changes over time, so younger Germans will duzen (say “du”) more than older Germans would.

(2) conversation between fellow students would be more informal than conversation between a student and a teacher, so it might still be appropriate for both the student and the teacher to say “Sie” to each other.

In German as well, like in the other languages posters have referred to, mainly a sense of what’s socially appropriate.

Erring in both directions can be a very mild to medium gaffe or, when deliberate, a definite snub or even an insult. An analogy in body language would be crowding someone (Du where Sie is expected) or keeping too much distance (Sie where Du is expected). So some people will sometimes hold off using any personal pronoun until plumping for one. A particular problem is addressing a group of people of which some are definitely Du and some are definitely Sie. Some regions are fortunate in that the 2nd person plural is the same for formal and informal.

I’ve read at least two times in advice columns (both social and career) about the problem: Yesterday my boss and I used Du when we were both under the influence. What to do? The advice was: Take your cue from him. If he reverts to Sie, pretend nothing happened.

As always polite people disregard gaffes and don’t return rudeness for rudeness.

For a lot of situations usage is pretty well understood, e.g.:

  • everyone to small children: Du
  • between people doing sports like team sports, sailing etc: Du
  • in a business context: Sie (communication with foreign esp. English-speaking business partners can be pretty disconcerting until you are used to their first-naming)
  • between members of Social Democrat/socialist/communist parties: Du (Sie is pretty useful for purpose of snub/insult in this context)

Words from the master. :wink:

My dad got himself slapped by a Fräulein while doing his tour of duty in Germany (in about 1952) for addressing her with du. He learned to use Sie pretty quickly after that.

For a lot of situations usage is pretty well understood, e.g.:

  • between members of Social Democrat/socialist/communist parties: Du (Sie is pretty useful for purpose of snub/insult in this context)[/QUOTE]
    I’m not sure I understand this. Do you mean that members of those parties have done away with ‘sie’ when speaking to each other? If so, is that supposed to be a reflection of the ‘equality’ traditionally espoused by ‘the Left’?

Not equality as such - equals can be formal as well as informal - more of a tradition emphasizing solidarity.

LOL, it gets even more complicated in Afrikaans… the formal form (U) has almost dropped from usage except in very formal contexts, and the informal form (jy) is still considered too familiar for, for example, children to use towards adults in many cases, so the resulting gap is filled with constructions like “Prof, may I borrow Prof’s notes, I’ll bring them back to Prof as soon as I’m done, thanks!”
Fortunately, saying thank you in Afrikaans doesn’t require a personal pronoun. And for older people without without a ready-made title, “tannie” (auntie) and “oom” (uncle) are used. There’s even a semi-formal consensus on when these forms need to be used: it was explained to me once that you use oom or tannie for anyone 20 years or more older than you. I’m not sure if this is meant to go on until you’re 80 and the other party is 100, but nvm… However, younger people tend to hate being called oom and tannie by kids; it makes them feel old, apparently, and they’re likely to say things like “I’m not your uncle” if some scrupulously polite child addresses them as such.

I have never been immersed in a culture with this language trait but in the time I spent in Italy, my observation was that, as mentioned earlier, the younger generation tended to “tu” each other without a thought. However, for the older generation, you were expected to be invited before you could address someone as “tu” similar to how in the old school of etiquette you would be expected to call someone Mr. Smith until he invited you to call him John. This relaxing of “tu” has more to do with modern times, that is, 100 years ago people didn’t call each other “tu” just because they were all in their 20’s. Kind of like in the U.S. people call strangers by their first names now.

Oh, just to clarify, “oom” and “tannie” are not used in this context only as names but also in place of any form of “you”, as in the “Prof” example above.

A friend of mine was stationed in Germany in the 1960s. As part of orientation they were given lessons in German. The instructor told them that he wasn’t going to bother to teach them the familiar forms, since they were only going to be there for two years and that wasn’t long enough to get to know anyone well enough to use it.:slight_smile: