petite anglaise

October 14, 2004

Voulez-vous coucher…

Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:14 pm

…avec moi ce soir?

That wasn’t an invitation. Sorry to disappoint.

It is however the French phrase which everyone seems to know. And I’ll come back to it in a minute.

The fact that there are two words for ‘you’ in French is another of the things which makes it difficult for English speakers to master the language.

In a nutshell, tu is the familiar you. It demonstrates a certain closeness and informality. So you would address a friend, peer, colleague, relative, child or pet as tu. If you talk to yourself, I imagine you would use it too.

Vous is the formal and plural you. It is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance or formality. To complicate matters, it is also the plural form of both tu and vous. Typically you would use this when talking to someone you don’t know well, an older person, an authority figure, or to two or more people or animals.

So coming back to my opening phrase, if you say ‘Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir’ then I would assume that you are a slapper/prostitute (a complete stranger?), you are in the market for a sugar daddy, a policeman, a ‘partouse’ (orgy) or a spot of bestiality.

During the French Revolution, and again in the liberal 60’s, waves of tutoiement helped to get the point across that all men should be equal and be addressed in the same way. Nowadays some companies advocate use of tuin the workplace when they want to be seen as progressive. But this can go too far. Sometimes a bit of distance doesn’t do any harm or a respectful Vous just feels right. When French TV interviewer Karl Zero addresses a politician he is interviewing as tu, which is his trademark, I inwardly cringe. He maintains that in so doing he is trying to bring down barriers and show that everyone is equal. To me this affectation makes him seem arrogant: it’s a case of look at me, I’m important enough to say tu to the Prime Minister…

If in doubt, you are supposed to ask the person you are talking to whether they mind you addressing them as tu. Former president Mitterand’s subtle rebuff in response to this question was apparently ‘Si Vous voulez…’

I call my in-laws vous. I can’t decide whether this is because they are old/authority figures/not in my family or whether it’s just me keeping my distance.

But it feels right.


  1. I used to call my ex’s dad “vous”, but his brother (my ex’s uncle) was “tu” as were my ex’s siblings… I was never really sure. It’s just so alien for us Brits.

    I’ve commented in French on a couple of blogs, and my instinct is to use “tu”, but it feels funny…

    I really enjoy your blog, by the way. Like you, having lived in France (and Belgium) and had a relationship with a Frenchman, I am fascinated by Franco-English linguistic and cultural differences

    Comment by witho — October 14, 2004 @ 2:23 pm

  2. I call my mother-in-law ‘vous’ but as she’s German it frankly makes very little difference.

    Comment by backroads — October 14, 2004 @ 2:55 pm

  3. Entry: Voulez-vous coucher
    Petite Anglaise asks Voulez-vous coucher:…avec moi ce soir? That wasn’t an invitation. Sorry to disappoint. It is however the French phrase which everyone seems to know. And I’ll come back to it in a minute. The fact that there are…

    Trackback by Showcase — October 15, 2004 @ 7:14 am

  4. I always use the Tu form, but then again, 90 percent of the time I’m talking to my children’s French friends. When I talk to adults, I forget, and say things the way I’m used to saying them, in the Tu form. As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of problems and then I start speaking English so they know I’m just a forgetful American and that I didn’t mean any kind of disrespect.

    Comment by mraparis — October 15, 2004 @ 7:17 am

  5. There are these french filmmakers, Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Real old couple, real bunch of characters. The work together. He smokes his cigar, yells at everyone and ruins his fedora by endlessly squashing it. She stands apart, with arms crossed, and only speaks to correct him, which is rare, but when it comes, deadly. But when they speak to each other, they always vous voyais. That’s respect and love.

    Comment by nardac — October 15, 2004 @ 9:39 am

  6. I feel your pain, querida! in pt we’ve got the equiv of tu and vous PLUS “o senhor” OR the person’s name to avoid using either and I’ll be buggered if I’ll ever get used to calling my m-i-l DONA Mariana (as in “Yes’um, Miss Scarlett” in gone with the wind)… and the awful descision to stop calling someone tu after você… when to do it,… will they get offended…etc … It’s terrible for an english person.

    Comment by vitriolica — October 15, 2004 @ 10:59 am

  7. One weekend, I was taking the TGV from Marseille back to Paris. The couple sitting across from my partner and I piqued my interest. She was very attractive and in her 20’s and he was much more mature. I thought they might be father and daughter until she straddled him and they started playing with each other’s tonsils. I, then, found it even more interesting that she would talk to him using the “vous” form and he would respond to her using the “tu” form. The man was wearing a wedding ring, but I have this strange feeling that they were not married to each other.

    Comment by Jason Stone — October 15, 2004 @ 11:16 am

  8. I have always found it strange that in French I can call God On High ‘tu’, yet my boss and bank manager are without a shadow of a doubt ‘vous’. Why is that?

    Comment by Suziboo — October 15, 2004 @ 11:56 am

  9. Only the French could worry about the proper form prior to getting their kit off. N’est pas ? :)

    Comment by Root — October 15, 2004 @ 10:43 pm

  10. Be glad you are not dealing with Thai, which has, as I recall, 54 different honorifics, depending on the relative status of each person in the conversation.

    Most foreigners (and of course in Thailand you have the advantage of your foreigness being immediately visible) simply learn the medium/high polite term “Khun” and use that for more or less everybody.

    I had a real ethical problem, however, when I got a maid, who I should by rights have called Nu (literally mouse), also the term used for children, because of my relatively high status. I deliberately decided, however, that I wouldn’t do this, even though she was uncomfortable with “Khun”. You can take “going native” only so far.

    Comment by Natalie — October 17, 2004 @ 1:04 am

  11. This tutoyment business annoys me. Here in Brussels people tend to use “tu” a lot more than seems appropriate to me. Shopkeepers, policemen, delivery men, salesmen, colleagues in the office and generally complete strangers all insist on addressing me as “tu”, while I stubbornly soldier on with the “vous”. After 22 years of living in the UK, I am just no longer used to the “tu” and hearing it irritates my ear!

    Comment by Miss Tra-La-La — October 20, 2004 @ 7:30 pm

  12. I use “vous” for my FIL and “tu” for my MIL. That’s because at the very beginning, my FIL told me a big long story about how it was all about tradition and respect which means that one must always use “vous” for ones parents in law. My MIL, however, crept up to me five minutes later and insisted that tradition is ridiculous and I use “tu” when speaking to her. ;)

    I’m still only just coming to grips with the language, and find that I accidentally slip between “vous” and “tu” at times. Most people just laugh it off. I do find it very hard to move from a “vous” relationship to a “tu” relationship in a work situation. I never know what to do.

    Comment by Katia — October 25, 2004 @ 8:22 pm

  13. Point de vue d’un français: i found it cute when native english speakers use “tu” instead of “vous”…I don’t feel offended, even in a professional context. I’ll feel at ease and use “tu” myself: native english, your mistakes are a strengh for you !!! A frenchman that would be offended bye a “tu” would really have a problem of ego i think…It is so seldom that anglosaxon learn to speak french, that we really excuse such details as a “tu”.
    I continue in french: Bien au contraire, les anglosaxons, en particulier américains ont une spontanéité que j’apprécie particulièrement. Que le “vous” n’existe pas en anglais en est un signe. La société française est assez ouverte pour ne pas focaliser sur de tels détails, dumoins je l’espère.:wink:

    Comment by théo-Montpell — November 4, 2004 @ 3:01 pm

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