“To be or not to be…” was a maybe a difficult question for Hamlet, but I more often than not find myself asking “To Tu or to Vous?”
Now what in god’s name could I be talking about? Anyone who has spent time in France will probably understand the dilemma; even those who have lived here their whole lives find themselves posing this question every once and a while. To sum it up, it’s a form of politeness, and how you address someone based on their age / social standing / profession… and you have to know when to use one or the other. Something that we Anglophones don’t have to put any effort into doing. In English we have the universal “you”, to be used for the young, the old, the poor, the rich, and even in a general ‘you the masses’ kind of way, bref, we’re rather lazy with our language.
When you ‘Tu’ someone it’s generally because: you’re near the same age, you’re older than they are, they are your friend or family, or a person has given you permission to (for example, at work when your boss gives you permission to ‘Tu’ rather than ‘vous’)
In pretty much any other situation you should use Vous, just to be on the safe side, that means: your bosses, hierarchy at work, your friend’s grandparents, the store clerk…
But then there are so many moments when it gets blurry and I find myself asking the question “Do I tu or do I vous ?” The confusion can be stressfull and make meeting someone incredibly awkward if you’re not sure how to address them… That moment of hesitation, while you’re trying to determine whether or not to be formal or informal… (One of my bosses ‘Tu’s me in the morning but he has never directly given me the ‘you can tu me’ permission, but because he ‘tu’s me, do I Tu him?)
Not only that, but along with the oral formalities your have the physical ones as well, « do I shake your hand or kiss you? » It’s incredibly awkward to go in for a kiss when someone outstretches their hand… or the other way around. Again, it’s all about your relation with the person, you’re not going to shake the hand of someone in your class, but don’t be trying to kiss the director of the company…
(When I say kiss, I am not talking about a ‘French kiss’, rather the Bisous, the kiss on each cheek)