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For some context:

In sociolinguistics, a T–V distinction (from the Latin pronouns tu and vos) is a contrast, within one language, between second-person pronouns that are specialized for varying levels of politeness, social distance, courtesy, familiarity, age or insult toward the addressee.

So for example in French there is "tu" and "vous", in Spanish there is "tú" and "usted", etc.

In general one uses "tu" (I'm going to use French as an example throughout) for peers or friends, and "vous" for strictly less or more senior people (so for example a professor would use "vous" with their students and vice versa). As a general rule of thumb, if you would call someone "madam/sir", you would use "vous".

In academia however, interactions are usually more relaxed: it's not unusual to call everyone by their first names, even as a PhD student addressing a professor. Similarly, I would expect that use of "tu" would be more prevalent in academia.

But as a new PhD student, it would have been unthinkable to use "tu" with a senior professor just three months ago, for example. And using someone's first name doesn't necessarily imply that I should use "tu" with them.

  • Should I use "tu" or "vous" to address more senior people? I guess it's probably safe to use "tu" with other grad students, postdocs or young faculty, but what about other people?

  • Does the answer change depending on if you see the person face-to-face or if you write them a letter/email?

PS: This is all probably language-dependent. I'm mostly interested for the answer in French, if it can prevent this question as being closed for being "too broad", but if it's possible to answer it in generality that would be great too.

  • In Spain, I use whatever they use to address me. – Davidmh Nov 20 '14 at 9:07
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    That is not always an option: writing an email to someone for the first time, speaking to someone for the first time and nobody said either "tu" or "vous" yet... – user24528 Nov 20 '14 at 9:11
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    At least in German, there is the third option of not addressing the person at all. However, it usually requires years of practice, if you do not want it to stand out. – Wrzlprmft Nov 20 '14 at 9:19
  • @Wrzlprmft: please give an example of that? I'm a German speaker but not sure what you're referring to. – smci Nov 20 '17 at 2:55
  • @smci: I’ll refer you to this question on German Language SE. If this does not help, contact me in chat. – Wrzlprmft Nov 20 '17 at 6:41
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Unfortunately, there is no general rule covering every situation (or every language).

However, a good rule of thumb is to just use the "vous" when you are not sure which one to use and then imitate the other person.

If you are more senior you probably can also offer using "tu", especially at the university, but with the rule from above you can be sure that you are not being considered rude.

The generally accepted way to address professors unfortunately differs from university to university (in my experience more than from country to country), so I suggest you use the rule from above.

With fellow graduate students and postdocs, you are right, you can in general use "tu".

Does the answer change depending on if you see the person face-to-face or if you write them a letter/email?

No.

(This might be specific to Germany and France, but I guess at least in Spain this behavior would also be fine.)

Addition: If you are on a first-name basis that usually means that you are allowed to use "tu" (at least in Germany this is generally accepted and from my observations this is also true in France).

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    My feeling is that Spain is, in general, a bit more relaxed; but this rule is definitely applicable. Younger people may get offended if you use "vous", as it would make them feel older, but they will mostly tongue in cheek (I was once told off by an 85 y.o. lady vehemently saying she was not that old). – Davidmh Nov 20 '14 at 21:20
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Even when addressing professors by their first name you should use "vous". That is not uncommon. I'm not that familiar with French (I had it in high school), but in German that is described as "Hamburger Sie". In my experience, it is considered quite rude to address older unfamiliar people, let alone your supervisor with "tu". So, go with "vous" regardless whether you are on first-name basis with the person. There is of course the exception when they insist on being addressed with "tu", but that is in the case of professors quite rare in my experience.

As for postdocs, students and young faculty I would consider it safe to use "tu", but would opt for the more "safe" option by addressing them with whatever they're addressing me. The once established addressing routine shouldn't wary when communicating face-to-face or via e-mail, unless for specific circumstances (e.g. the e-mail is very formal and is sent to many senior people)

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    I've heard many, many PhD students address their advisor as "tu" in French, and nobody seemed offended. So I guess that this settles the question for German, but not for other languages... – user24528 Nov 20 '14 at 9:18
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    I have never encountered the "Hamburger Sie" outside of Hamburg, if someone offers to call him by his first name, then that implies (at least for me) to use "du/tu". – The Almighty Bob Nov 20 '14 at 9:27
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    I am German and I know professors who do not want to be addressed with last name and Sie (vous) by anybody, including freshman students, as well as such who are even colleagues address with last name and Sie. And that’s all in one discipline and at one university. You really cannot make a general statement here. – Wrzlprmft Nov 20 '14 at 9:33
  • @TheAlmightyBob I lived in Berlin and it was quite common, only recently has it come to my attention that this practice is called "Hamburger Sie". Also, in my experience people make the difference when they want to be addressed by first name and when they don't want you to use formal speech when addressing them. I have never deducted from someone insisting on first name basis to stop addressing them as "Sie/vous", unless they explicitly state that too. That might just be the upbringing and again my experience, as Wrzlprmft said, there can be no general statement here. – user3209815 Nov 20 '14 at 9:59
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    @Wrzlprmft: Indeed, but would any of the former group be offended if they had been addressed with last name and Sie (vous) in an initial message by a stranger? Conversely, would any of the latter group possibly be offended when a stranger initiates contact and addresses them with first name + du (tu)? I don't know the particular people you are referring to, but in general, using last name + Sie would definitely be the "safe way" to go. – O. R. Mapper Nov 20 '14 at 23:25

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