…avec moi ce soir?
That wasn’t an invitation. Sorry to disappoint.
It is however the French phrase which everyone seems to know. And I’ll come back to it in a minute.
The fact that there are two words for ‘you’ in French is another of the things which makes it difficult for English speakers to master the language.
In a nutshell, tu is the familiar you. It demonstrates a certain closeness and informality. So you would address a friend, peer, colleague, relative, child or pet as tu. If you talk to yourself, I imagine you would use it too.
Vous is the formal and plural you. It is used to show respect or maintain a certain distance or formality. To complicate matters, it is also the plural form of both tu and vous. Typically you would use this when talking to someone you don’t know well, an older person, an authority figure, or to two or more people or animals.
So coming back to my opening phrase, if you say ‘Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir’ then I would assume that you are a slapper/prostitute (a complete stranger?), you are in the market for a sugar daddy, a policeman, a ‘partouse’ (orgy) or a spot of bestiality.
During the French Revolution, and again in the liberal 60’s, waves of tutoiement helped to get the point across that all men should be equal and be addressed in the same way. Nowadays some companies advocate use of tuin the workplace when they want to be seen as progressive. But this can go too far. Sometimes a bit of distance doesn’t do any harm or a respectful Vous just feels right. When French TV interviewer Karl Zero addresses a politician he is interviewing as tu, which is his trademark, I inwardly cringe. He maintains that in so doing he is trying to bring down barriers and show that everyone is equal. To me this affectation makes him seem arrogant: it’s a case of look at me, I’m important enough to say tu to the Prime Minister…
If in doubt, you are supposed to ask the person you are talking to whether they mind you addressing them as tu. Former president Mitterand’s subtle rebuff in response to this question was apparently ‘Si Vous voulez…’
I call my in-laws vous. I can’t decide whether this is because they are old/authority figures/not in my family or whether it’s just me keeping my distance.
But it feels right.