Tu or vous? How to use the polite form of address in different languages

This article was originally posted on the Locale blog

Effective localization nails down the language, tone and cultural nuances of a target market. But even the best strategy can fail if you don’t know how to properly address your customers.

In English, there isn’t a polite or impolite form of address — the word “you” is used regardless of who you’re speaking to.

However, in a lot of other languages, the correct form of address depends on a person’s age, status and how well you know them.

We look at how polite forms differ in each language and the right time to use them.

What happened to polite forms in English?

While you don’t need to worry about polite forms of address in English, that wasn’t always the case. It’s useful to understand how similar conventions existed in English, before we look at other languages.

Originally, English speakers would use “thou” as an informal term. It was used to address people the speaker was familiar with, like family members or close friends. “You” was the formal term and used to show respect.

By the 16th century, things had changed.

“Thou” evolved into a critical term that was usually used to demonstrate superiority. English speakers started using “you”, which was considered safer in social situations. By the mid-18th century, the informal “thou” was almost obsolete — and the rest is history.

Knowing your “tu” from your “vous”

French is one of the best examples of the differences between polite forms of address. Both “tu” and “vous” mean “you”, but can’t be used interchangeably.

Use “tu” in informal situations

“Tu” is the informal form of address. Generally, it’s used when you’re talking to:

  • Children
  • Young people in informal settings (for example, college students will often use “tu” to address peers)
  • People you’re close to, like friends or family members

For localization, you’d only use “tu” if your app is targeted at young people.

Use “vous” in formal business settings

Since “vous” is used in business environments, it’s likely that “vous” is the correct term of address if you’re translating your app into French. It’s used when you’re talking to:

  • Older people (for example, children will address teachers with “vous”)
  • People you don’t know
  • Managers, colleagues or anyone in a work setting
  • Customers

If in doubt, it’s safer to use “vous”.

How polite forms change in Spanish

In Spanish, “tu” and “vos” are the informal forms of address. You’ll use “usted” as the formal term to signify respect.

Spanish speakers are much quicker to use the informal “tu” than French speakers. It’s used when you’re talking to someone the same age, educational level or rank as you, as well as people you know well.

“Usted” is used to address someone you’re meeting for the first time, an older person or someone with a higher rank, like a manager.

Spanish isn’t a one-size-fits-all language

“Usted” is used in every Spanish-speaking country, but the correct informal form of address will depend on which country you’re targeting.

Some people say that the differences between “tu” and “vos” relate back to each country’s relationship with Spain in the colonial period. Countries that were geographically isolated tend to use “vos”, while countries that prefer “tu” had more communication with Spain.

You’ll find quirks and anomalies in every region, but generally the informal terms are divided as follows:

  • “Tu” is primarily used in Spain, Peru, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico
  • “Vos” and “tu” are used in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela
  • “Vos” is the preferred term across the rest of Latin America, like Argentina, Paraguay and Costa Rica

Understanding honorific language in Japan

The Japanese language has several levels of formality: formal, informal and honorific. If you’re localizing your app for Japan, you’ll need to adjust your language and make sure you show the right amount of respect for your customers.


Teineigo (ていねいご) is formal or polite language. It’s the default used by adults and is also used to speak to someone who’s higher in rank. To get to grips with different “ranks”, imagine that a teacher ranks above a student and a customer ranks above a salesperson.


Kudaketa (くだけた) is informal language that tends to be used by close family members, friends and children.


Keigo (けいご) is honorific language, which is a step up from teineigo in formality and politeness. It’s used when speaking to someone who’s much higher in rank.

Keigo terms don’t just depend on who you’re talking to — your language will change depending on who you’re talking about. It has two extra distinctions, which are essentially an extra level of politeness:

  • Sonkeigo (そんけいご) is language that’s used to show respect to the person you’re talking about or things related to them
  • Kenjougo (けんじょうご) is humble language used when talking about something related to yourself. You’re essentially showing respect by lowering or downgrading yourself

Keigo is typically used in business communications, although many companies have started using less formal language to create a friendlier image for customers.

That said, bear in mind that a certain level of formality is still expected in Japan — you won’t find a Japanese app or website using informal language.

Understanding how polite forms differ between languages is essential when you’re launching into a new market.

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