To tu or not to tu, that is the question. Some years ago I addressed my son’s 12-year-old schoolmate with a formal “vous” rather than informal “tu”. “Thanks dad, now she thinks you are a cretin,” he said. To French ears, it was as if I had called her “Miss Smith”.
The Los Angeles Times marked the French national day this week with an elaborate diagram explaining when it is appropriate to say “vous” and when to say “tu”. If you are an adult talking to a child, you say “tu”, unless the child is royalty. If you are an adult talking to an adult, you say “tu” to family, friends and lovers – and to your boss if you work for the French branch of Google. Otherwise, you say vous.
You would need the wiring diagram of a space rocket to cover all the subtle shades of “tu”. It can be a term of endearment or an insult; a put down or a verbal equivalent of masonic handshake. The whole system is in any case under siege from the Francophone social media where everyone seems to say “tu” to everyone.
And there are still families which address one another as “vous” above the age of six. When my daughter was 13, she heard a friend say to her mother “maman, vous êtes une salope” (literally, mummy, you are a whore). What shocked her most was that her friend should call her mum “vous”.