When would you use “tu” or “vous”?

Quick guide to avoid UK/French cultural confusion in your business 


If you are a UK person working or planning to work with French people, or a French person unfamiliar with UK office culture, here are a few key pointers to help you navigate some of the more frequently encountered cultural differences.

In the UK, you’re likely to assume a business meeting is about exchanging ideas, making decisions and agreeing a way forward. If the meeting comprises mixed cultures, this assumption could be a mistake and can cause a potentially damaging misunderstanding, particularly between UK and French partners! If you are French, you’ll leave a meeting having explored alternative ideas and possible outcomes, but you won’t think you’ve made a decision or agreed to anything binding.

French corporate culture is more formal and hierarchical than that in the UK.

French business decisions can take several iterations before they become ‘final’, negotiating up through the corporate hierarchy until the right level of seniority and authority is reached to sanction action – as we have found out with our prospects and clients in various part of France. Alternatively and confusingly, you may experience a considerable degree of laissez-faire. Wherever you are on the corporate cultural spectrum, make sure your proposals and contracts are watertight and specific. And be aware of any potential pitfalls French legislation may cause – your interlocutor may be ready to take advantage of a legal loophole!

Presenting your business card printed in the relevant languages is also good etiquette when attending a meeting with colleagues from other cultures!

UK senior managers may adopt a relaxed, sometimes humorous management style, cracking a joke to diffuse tension during an important negotiation or using informal conversation to build rapport. This can be disconcerting to people accustomed to a more formal culture. Humour, informality and enquiries about family can be misunderstood and a potential source of discomfort for French senior managers, more accustomed to being addressed with title and surname, treated with deference and respect by their subordinates, and who keep work and home life distinctly separate. This may feel strange when your contact is a trendy Parisian 10 years your junior!

UK office culture is generally collaborative across layers of the management hierarchy, fostering cooperation and competition. And being flexible about working hours and work/life balance is the expected norm in the UK. Maybe typically longer working hours and the blurring of work and home life thanks to pervasive mobile technology and a comparatively workaholic culture partially explains UK workers’ readiness to socialise with their work colleagues. French workers, on the other hand, greatly value an enviable 35 hour week, and their right to disconnect from the office – their distinct personal and social life is often much better balanced than in the UK as a result!

Finally, the answer to the question “When to use ‘tu’ or ‘vous’?” is simple – ALWAYS ALWAYS use “vous” in business encounters, unless you’re invited to say “tu” by your interlocutor.

Bear in mind that if you’re communicating via social networks the form of address tends to be more informal (up to a point – depending on who you are addressing).

We’d love to hear about your experiences of cultural differences while doing business, and their impact – particularly in the wake of Brexit.

Category: Business, Cross Cultural Marketing, International Marketing, Marketing | Tags: , , , , , Comments Off on When would you use “tu” or “vous”?

Comments are closed.

Back to top