Another knotty problem in my French social customs series [for the others, see Customs in Topics in the right-hand sidebar].
In English, we use you for both the 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural. The old thou form of the 2nd person singular died out long ago in everyday speech. In French, of course, it’s different. Tu is the 2nd person singular, vous is the 2nd person plural. But…vous is also used to address people you don’t know well or people to whom you owe respect.
Well into the 20th century in rural society, children addressed their parents as vous but were tutoied in return. It’s said that Charles de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne always addressed each other as vous, even in private. That must have made for some stilted pillow talk. Tu was sometimes used as a means of exerting authority. In Simenon’s Maigret novels, for example, Commissaire Maigret tutoies the villains and most of his subordinates.
At what point do you cross the vous-tu line? Even after 13 years here, there are some situations in which we are flummoxed.
French society is becoming more casual, but amongst our friends and acquaintances, there is a bewildering range of different practices. We tutoie most of our friends but there are a few people we’ve known for years with whom we’ll always be vous. In one particularly bizarre situation, we say tu to the wife but vous to the husband, who is of the old school. My yoga teacher tutoies everyone straight off but after 11 years, some members of my other exercise class are only just starting to tutoie me. We’ve known our neighbours’ granddaughter since she was seven, but should we address her as vous now that she’s 20? I have got myself so tied up in knots about this issue that I have even been known to address the cat as vous.
So there are few hard and fast rules and it depends on the people you happen to be with – how old they are, where they were brought up, how well-travelled they are, etc. The only way to approach this is to address everyone (except small children and animals) as vous until they propose otherwise or start addressing you as tu, which is a signal that you can do it too.
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