Let me quizz you. Do you know what the French expression to be « à tu et à toi » means ?
Easy for a French native : it means to be close enough to someone so that you can say « tu » or « toi » to that person. You may thus deduce that when you are close to someone, you say « tu » ?
It is not that simple… How can I explain to my English friend that when Balzac writes to his mistress, the Duchess of Abrantes, he writes « vous » to her… but when he writes back to a Russian admirer, mistress to be, Madame Hanska, he writes « tu » to her ?
De vous à moi
As a French TV writer, my rule is that when characters, who are not familiar to each other, sleep together, suddenly you slide from « vous » to « tu ». Personally I would avoid them addressing each other for a while because it is so difficult to make this sound natural. This untangible slide from « vous » to « tu » happens in films, in the same artificial way the bad guys smoke and listen to classical music ; it is a code for the spectator, but real life is much more sophisticated…
I am now going to introduce you to the subleties of French language which even some French people are not conscious of.
« Vous » and « tu » are used to express distance and proximity in terms of social rank, age, intimacy.
Vous : calling for respect and sometimes distance…
In the aristocracy and some bourgeois families, one can still say « vous » to one’s parents and vice versa. You are supposed to say « vous » to your employee unless your relationship gets casual enough and… you are not afraid they might take it for granted that you are not on the same level. If you are the employee, you may not want to say « vous » to your boss to keep a barrier between the two of you in case you find yourself resenting that if you say « tu » to each other, you might be called on Sundays.
Balzac, the Duchess and I.
Like any set rule in France, that of « vous » and » « tu » is meant to be bent.
You may use « vous » to suggest respect and distance or just for fun. I remember I had a boyfriend who was not from an aristocratic nor bourgeois family, but who said « Vous » to me for more than a year. That was a kind of erotic game between us. When we separated he said « tu » to me. How frustrating ! Now you understand Balzac and the Duchess of Abrantes…
Tu for two
All the same, if you do not know a person who is older than you, you are supposed to say « vous ». But in a charming way, you may say « tu » to pretend there is no age gap between both of you and make them feel younger, as some salesperson sometimes calls me « Mademoiselle ». It always brings a smile to my face.
On the reverse, you are not supposed to say « vous » to a child or an adolescent, but you could use « vous » to stress you respect this young person, and his or his shyness, you may say « vous » too…
To describe this, there are two verbs vouvoyer and voussoyer. According to Littré dictionnary says Pierre Bouillon in his blog, « voussoyer » is preferable. Personnally I found it very snobish ; vouvoyer is the most commonly used
Tu : calling for intimacy
« Tu » is used with people among your friend or family circle but, again, there are some exceptions. « Tu », for example, is meant to boost the community spirit. If talking to a communist, and if you are a communist, you are no longer going to call him « comrade », but you will definitely say « tu » to him meaning you belong to the same « political family ». Generally socialists, whose party comes from trades unionism, will also go easily from « vous » to « tu », whereas right wing party members will more often be reluctant to use « tu ».
In some fields like journalism, movies, advertising, where it is essential to establish contact as fast as you can, people tend to say « tu » to you after two sentences. Again, « tu » states that you belong to the same community.
On peut se tutoyer ?
You can also say « tu » to someone you see for the first time if you want to show that the ice is broken. « Tu » can be used to put someone at ease, to abolish distances. Sometimes people will love it, sometime, they will feel you intruded their private life.Before getting into this intimate sphere, you are supposed to ask : « On peut se tutoyer … »
Slips to the tongue.
When you get to know someone, it happens very often that one drifts back and forth from « vous » to « you »,. If the last time you saw the person, you said « tu » but suddenly you do not feel that intimate, then your unconscious mind will get you back to « vous » without your noticing.
Then the person may be surprised or offended and say : « je croyais qu’on se tutoyait ? »
Vous and tu : fuel for conflict
Quite naturally « Vous » and « tu » can be used to show a change in the relationship : If you thought you were friends and you realise you do no longer feel close, you may very aggresively say « vous » to someone showing one does not mix apple and pears. But it is rare and very arrogant.
Or… « tu » can be used as a lethal weapon to express you despise someone, establishing as we say in French that you have not tended pigs together « on n’a pas gardé les cochons ensemble ». This voluntarily slip of the tongue from « vous » to « tu » happened to our former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. When visiting the agricultural fair in Paris, the chief of State wanted to shake hand with a man, who replied « don’t touch me you are getting me dirty » « me touche pas tu me salis », and president slaped back : « get away arshole » « casse-toi, pauvre con ». It greatly harmed his image.
I suppose that instead of enlighting you, I have made it a little bit more confusing. But you should not feel self conscious about « vous » and « tu » for the French themselves often wonder what to say.