Every day I thank the language Gods for the invention of the pronoun “you” in English. No matter who you talk to, whether it’s your boss, your in-laws, a close friend or a perfect stranger, it’s a no-brainer: just say “you.”
It’s not a given, you know. A lot of languages have two ways of saying “you”: French has “tu” and “vous,” much like Spanish has “tú” and “usted,” Portuguese has “tu” and “você” and Chinese has “你” and “您”. The rule depends on the subtleties of the language, but generally one uses for informal “you” (“tu”), which demonstrate a certain closeness, when speaking to relatives, friends, children, etc. “Vous” is used to show respect and maintain a certain distance or formality, and it is best to use it when talking to a stranger, an older person or an authority figure.
This is the rule of thumb but in fact, it’s much more complicated than that. Using the right pronoun at the right time requires constant evaluation of the situation. When is someone close enough to use “tu”? Friends, for sure: if you are in the same age group, even if you don’t know each other very well, it is acceptable to say “tu.” How about family? Well, most people use “tu” when talking to relatives, although I do know some super formal family in which the parents make the kids use “vous” when talking to them. Using “vous” when speaking to in-laws is also common, especially if they are older people. Yet you don’t want to look too distant: in my family, it’s common to go on a first name basis but to keep the “vous”—a rather weird mix. It can be even trickier at work: people hierarchically above you may say “tu” while you may have to say “vous” to them.
Note that you can easily offend someone both ways, by using “tu” instead of “you,” but also by using “vous” instead of “tu.” A few years ago in France, I was arguing over a statement with an employee at the bank when an American backpacker entered. He obviously didn’t speak fluent French but he did ask whether he could cash his Travellers Cheque very properly. However, the bank employee behind the counter gasped when she heard him speak. Not because he butchered the French language—because he had talked to her using the forbidden “tu.” And when doing business, using “vous” is the rule. The employee and the queue of customers that had formed behind were still talking about the rude American long after the transaction was completed.
Now, using “vous” when you are supposed to use “tu” can also be awkward. You may come across as someone distant, cold, someone a bit posh even. If you start saying “tu,” don’t revert to “vous” as there is no going back… or be prepared to live with the consequences!
As I discovered in Canada, things are much less formal and less complicated. First, in both English and French, people tend to go on a first name basis very quickly, even at work. You may say “M. Smith” the first few times but people generally invite you to say just “John,” no matter how high “John” is in the hierarchy. More surprising to me, in businesses, employees are not shy at all to say “tu,” especially if you are relatively young. At university, many students use “tu” when talking to the professor, which is rather strange to me—in France, except maybe at kindergarten, you must say “vous” when talking to a teacher or a professor! But wait: my current classmates at university use “vous” with me. Uh… sure. I may be a couple of years older than them but it makes me feel like I’m one hundred years old.
I can’t get rid of my Frenchness easily and some of my co-workers had to beg me to use “tu” when I first came to Canada. But after years of living in Ottawa, where most people are Anglophones who do not take offence at the use of “tu” and “vous,” I must admit I don’t bat an eyelash when I hear weird combinations.
All in all, I think the distinction between “tu” and “vous” is quite archaic. Part of me grew up with it and I still master it. But I can’t help thinking the fit all “you” pronoun which suits all usages makes life much easier.