Perhaps you’ll find the question in the title bizarre because you learned that strangers always use vous when speaking to each other, and so the answer should be a given. But if I’m addressing it here, it’s because you’ll often read online or in certain learning materials that the Québécois rarely use the polite vous form, preferring the familiar tu instead.
The situation I want to look at here is how strangers behaved when they spoke spontaneously with me — did they say tu or vous?
Before I continue, you should know that:
- I’m in Montréal (someone in a different region could have different results),
- I’m a 40-year-old male (different ages could elicit different results),
- These are just informal observations, but the results provide a good idea.
For the purposes of this commentary, a stranger is a person I’ve never met before with whom I had a short exchange or conversation, and someone I’ll presumably never speak with again. Over the past two weeks, I’ve paid attention to how these people address me to be able to comment on it here.
I didn’t just pay attention to whether they literally used tu or vous, but also wording like ton or votre, or which conjugation they used in the imperative (prends or prenez, etc.). If the exchange didn’t call for any such uses, I’ve simply not taken it into account here. To be considered as addressing me as vous, for example, it wasn’t enough for a stranger to be polite (e.g., bonjour, monsieur!); I had to actually hear vous in some form (vous, votre, vos, prenez, etc.).
The results are unequivocal:
Strangers have systematically addressed me as vous.
I’ve been spoken to by both male and female strangers of different ages (about 20 people in total, including random people in the street, cashiers, etc.), and not one person has said tu to me. All the strangers were adults, with the exception of one teenager.
A few situational examples:
- A man in his 20s asked me for help connecting his laptop to WiFi. He addressed me as vous.
- A woman in her 20s asked for help to find the correct STM bus to take. She addressed me as vous.
- A woman in her 20s asked if she could take one of the extra seats at my table in a public space. She addressed me as vous.
- A man in his 40s (possibly 50s) sitting beside me on an STM bus struck up a conversation with me. He addressed me as vous.
- A man in his 30s (maybe 40s) struck up a conversation with me while waiting for an STM métro to pull into the station. He addressed me as vous.
- A man in his 60s asked me for spare change. He addressed me as vous.
- A teenager asked me for a cigarette. He addressed me as vous. (No, I don’t smoke!)
- A man (age unknown) called me on my phone to ask if I were still selling my computer. (I’m not selling a computer; he called the wrong number.) He addressed me as vous.
- All receptionists and cashiers regardless of gender or age (from about ages 20 to 60) addressed me as vous when the situation called for a choice between tu or vous.
So, there you go. Again, just informal observations here, but it’s enough to draw a conclusion about how strangers behave spontaneously in Montréal, I think. (Although I’m sure the results would’ve been very different if I’d included examples of angry strangers, like ones in the throes of road rage…)