In most western European countries, we have a form of politeness to adress either customer that we have not worked for a long time with or senior management : Vous / Usted / Sie (respectively French, Spanish & German) also known as T-V distinction.

Due to globalization and English as its lingua franca, the Vous / Usted / Sie is slowly getting replaced by the You, which can be translated to Tu / Tú / du.

I had this conversation with several colleagues over the years. Some are adamant that we should stick to T–V distinction because it will implicitly makes the customer feels , that we are only acting in a commercial capacity , implcitely shielding us from harassement from the customers by reminding them we are not their "friends", which can be mistaken with Tu / Tú / du and its familiarity.

Mine and some others ex-colleagues/friends have evolved, thinking that regardless, of using the T–V distinction, it will make no difference, and that if the customers feels he is right about something, he/she will do what is necessary go what him/her heard, even nagging you the hard way. We'd better make the customers feel heard and respected but keeping a friendly distance nevertheless (e.g Marcus Aurelius) regardless of using Tu / Tú / du or Vous / Usted / Sie.

Having dealt with customers, some easy, some just plain terrible, I know I'm right but I have a hard time explaining it in a really short way.

If you have in any way something shorter than what I wrote above, to explain it to my current colleagues/junior staff, I'm all ears.

  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it concerns spoken language, not navigating the workplace. – Jim G. Apr 12 '16 at 10:27
  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Apr 12 '16 at 21:10

I have to second your opinion, but personally, I would say it also depends on the business culture. Some startup companies may choose to drop the T-V distinction in all their business communication for the sake of sounding more personal or even "modern". At the same time it's a question of the target audience - especially a younger target audience may think it's old fashioned to use any T-V distinction.

From a language viewpoint, the usage of the T-V distinction isn't necessarily a sign of politeness or distance. It can even be used the other way to intensify an insult. The most famous example (in Germany) beeing the sentence:

"Mit Verlaub, Sie sind ein Arschloch, Herr Präsident!

Translated (without T-V):

"With all due respect, Mr President, you are an asshole."

So I would strongly doubt that it has any other use then the one described in my first paragraph - especially not to keep a distance to aggresive/ annoying customers.

  • 1
    Hi @s1lv3r, I enjoy very much your answer – Andy K Apr 11 '16 at 9:56

It's a very culturally dependent thing, I guess. I'm from the Netherlands and we are not the most formal people in the world. Our neighbours in Germany are very attached to the proper use of Du/Sie and also their titles (like Dr.). In Holland, not so much. You start out usually with the 'polite' form, but a lot of times, people actually say: please, use the 'you'-form.

I actually agree with you, I think how you address someone doesn't necessarily relate to how professionally you treat them or how they will treat you. It's perfectly possible to drop the T-V distinction and still maintain a professional working relationship/distance. But, I do believe that this only works if people think about this the same way as you do. There are some more old-fashioned people who do not like to be you-ed and they might feel uncomfortable. If I know this is the case, I won't force it :)


As the others have already said, it depends quite a lot on the actual country: there are cultural differences between France, Germany, Spain, etc. I can give you a bit of insight from a French and German point of view, as I work with both these languages.

1: "Vous" and "Sie" are not necessarily polite forms: they're also plural pronouns ("vous" is plural "you", "Sie" is "they"). That can be important depending on context: when you contact a customer, do you speak to them personally, or do you contact one person who is, in fact, just the "face" of the company for you? If you are talking to the whole company through that person, then I would always use "vous" or "Sie".

2: In doubt, wait for the customer to set the tone. If you use "tu/du" and the customer answers you with "vous/Sie" that means it is the way they wish to be addressed to, and you should listen. Forced "tutoiement/duzen" can seem really unnatural to some people. As a rule of thumb, it is always less awkward to start on a formal basis (vous/Sie) and then evolve to a more informal tone.

Finally, don't worry too much about it! It's a grey area even for native speakers, and if really it becomes an issue, best thing left is to ask:

"Excusez-moi, pouvons-nous nous tutoyer ?"

"Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte, aber könnten wir uns duzen?"

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .