All (adult) strangers should be addressed as Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle. This rule applies to both adults and children.
Pardon, Madame, vous pourriez m’indiquer la gare ?
Excuse me, ma’am, could you show me the way to the station?
People in particular professional positions – priest, mayor, M.P. – should be addressed as:
Monsieur le curé
Madame le maire
Monsieur le deputé
When addressing someone you have already met, you may have to choose between surname and first name. While the younger generation tend to use first names as freely a the English/Americans, with older people, be cautious about dropping courtesy titles unless you are invited to do so. Because of the complexity of the choice between tu and vous, some older people may be reluctant to rush onto first-name terms.
To make a polite reference in the third person to someone, use the following:
le monsieur | the gentleman/the man
la dame | the lady
la jeune femme | the lady/young lady (approximately 18-40 years old)
la jeune fille | the young lady (approximately 12-20 years old)
Note: la fille is not a polite way to refer to a girl (roughly translated as “chick”). But groups of young people may be described as les gars (the guys) and les filles (the girls).
For more on this topic, check out my previous post Tu or Vous.
Figuring out when to use tu or vous can be a bit tricky. English speakers are used to the all-purpose “you”, so this is both an intriguing and baffling concept to grasp. Even for the French, the choice between calling someone tu, and calling someone vous can be delicate. There really aren’t always hard and fast rules; this practice varies according to generation, social context, individual background, and personality. While someone may address you by their title and surname will almost always be vous, it does not follow automatically that the use of first names implies tu.
So when should you always use tu, or always use vous?
Tu is always used to speak to young children (pre-adolescent) or animals.
In the vast majority of families, relatives call each other tu. However, this depends on each household; sometimes children may be expected to address parents or older relatives with vous.
Schoolchildren and students will always call their peers tu, even if they have never met them before.
Adult strangers should always be addressed as vous initially. If friendship develops, tu may be used.
Vous is of course, always used when addressing two or more people.
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