That is to say, the person I am speaking to, i.e. ‘you’. Prince or pauper, president or peasant, priest or penitent, and regardless of the relationship between the two of us, we English just say ‘you’. Age, familiarity, class or courtesy are immaterial: simply ‘you’. Which makes modern English quite unlike other a whole host of other languages which continue to draw this kind of distinction between the participants in a conversation. And all three of the languages in which I can claim varying degrees of competence – French, German and now Italian – certainly do this. French has informal ‘tu’ and formal ‘vous’, while German has ‘du’ and ‘Sie’, and Italian has ‘tu’ and ‘Lei’. Incidentally, I also have a passing acquaintanceship with Malay, having done a six-week course in the language some twenty years ago at the start of our three-year tour of duty in Borneo. Although I can now remember little more than a few stock phrases, I can at least confirm that Malay also has formal and informal versions of ‘you’. But I digress…
The consequence of this distinction is that in every conversation the speaker holds in one of these languages, a judgement call is required: formal or informal? ‘Tu’ or ‘Lei’? For native speakers this judgement is, of course, made without conscious recourse to any rules. They just know. But for non-native speakers deciding which to use can be an absolute minefield. Yes, dictionaries and grammar books make a stab at explaining what the rules are. In French, we are told, ‘tu’ is used when speaking to children, family, friends and colleagues you know well, whereas ‘vous’ is used when speaking to older people, strangers, customers, and in business situations. It doesn’t take long to realise, though, that there are some pretty big grey areas here. What exactly is ‘a colleague you know well’? And what about when you are speaking to this colleague ‘in a business situation? And who on earth are ‘older people’? The whole year I was in Strasbourg, I lived in constant fear of insulting one person by being too chummy, or snubbing another by being too distant. In German it is even worse. The rules are broadly similar in theory (with hierarchy as an added factor) but in practice they are interpreted much more conservatively, with a very dim view being taken of any over-familiarity. In the late 1980s when Mr Blue-Shirt was posted to Minden in northern Germany, I taught English at a small language school run jointly by the owner and his right-hand woman. They had worked together – in the same office, even – for well over twenty years, but they still addressed each other with the formal ‘Sie’ – and with Herr this and Frau that, not first names. Similarly, when the Army posted Mr Blue-Shirt to Paderborn some years later, I did a lot of teaching in a large automotive components company and got to know a particular fairly senior manager and his long-serving secretary pretty well. He addressed her with ‘du’, but she addressed him with ‘Sie’. And again, no first names. All of which gives the impression that many more relationships are conducted ‘at arm’s length’, and – to my sensibilities at least – that there always seems to be a sense of being either ‘in’ or ‘out’, and more usually the latter. Nevertheless, throughout our eleven years in Germany, I always erred on the side of caution and kept things formal, but disliked the distance I always felt I was creating.
Yes, yes, I know that English had a familiar and a respectful ‘you’ up until the late 17th century, and that the ‘you’ of today is in fact derived from the formal version ‘ye’ or ‘thee’ (‘thou’ being the corresponding informal version). This notwithstanding, I find having a single ‘you’ much more unifying and non-judgemental. No ‘in’ or ‘out; no ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’. Just ‘you’.
So it was with some trepidation that I first engaged with Italian people, constantly keeping an ear out for when, where and how ‘tu’ or ‘Lei’ was used in every conversation I entered in to. I knew from our several years of Italian evening classes that the rules were much the same as for French and German, but would practice match the theory? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that ‘tu’ is indeed generally used with children, family, friends and colleagues, and ‘Lei’ with strangers, customers, and in business or official situations. But no, in the sense that people tend to move from the formal to the informal more quickly than in French – and loads more quickly than in German. Thus, within a couple of weeks, all my adult students addressed me with ‘tu’ (and my first name), which gave me a real sense of collaboration between equals, rather than simply A.N. Other supplier delivering a service (OK, I may be over-thinking this somewhat). And once Cecilia who works in the café in the village found that we were neighbours, she immediately moved from ‘Lei’ to ‘tu’. Similarly, having realised that we weren’t just tourists but actually lived here, the chubby clerk with thinning hair in the post office switched to ‘tu’. Karina, my frighteningly trendy hairdresser with the huge horn-rimmed spectacles did the same after about three appointments, and Silvio, our slightly intense and otherwise risk-averse architect even sooner. Our charming insurance agent, Marco, took a little longer, but then again, the first time we met him, we were struck by his old-world courtesy and impeccable manners. And last but not least, even our laid back doctor with the ancient BMW has now dropped the ‘Lei’ in favour of ‘tu’. Whether being a similar age is the common factor, or some vague notion of shared endeavour, I have no idea. Whatever it is, though, the result is the same – and something I confess that the English ‘you’ actually cannot achieve: a positive sense of inclusion and acceptance. And a confirmation that we are no longer strangers.