Je te dis vous: the title of that Patricia Kaas song sums up the difficulty for foreigners of coming to terms with the use of vous and tu, without doubt the trickiest aspect of the language.
Anyone who learned French in a British school would have been taught that vous was the form to use with strangers, superiors and older people; tu was for friends and others you know well and also for children and animals.
Of course, it’s always been more complicated than that. Once above a certain altitude, we’ve been told, French mountaineers, whatever their relationship, always use tu, on the way down they switch back to vous. Then there are those cases of famous couples – Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle, Sartre and de Beauvoir – who stuck to vous during decades of intimacy. But now the conservative daily le Figaro has told us that vous is falling out of favour and more and more even fairly straight-laced Gauls are going for tu most of the time. Maybe, but be careful.
What they often didn’t tell you in school is that tu can be disrespectful and so ill-received which is why Sarkozy (inescapable, isn’t he!) has told cops working in the suburbs not to say tu to youngsters of Arab and African descent.
So what’s the solution, heh?
Sensible advice from he business magazine Challenges to those arriving in a work place: “Listen to how the others – your superiors and colleagues – address each other and try to fit in with the house usage. In an ad agency likely everyone will be tu, in a bank no way!”