|Mary with French friends, Rebecca and Patrick. We "tutoyer" each other. I am the "old" one, so I am flattered.|
The French language also has formal and informal means of addressing a person (as do all Latin languages).
To " vouvoyer" each other is a transitive verb for formally addressing another. The informal verb is " tutoyer" and is used in the familiar usage. There is a big choice to make here if one wants to be respectful in conversation.
When I first came to Nice and was learning the language, my first instinct was to always use the formal usage just to be on the safe side. But if you call a young married woman ( of say 23 years) "vous" and "Madame", she may be a little offended.....seeing as how she still looks and feels like a "mademoiselle".
As I was attending classes in art and language when I first arrived, it seemed that just being students together , no matter what rank or age, made us all eligible for informality or the "tu" form. Some older people didn't like the idea that in all of the classroom, you had singled them out with "vous", when they too were students with the rest. So then I got used to using the informal "tutoyer" at school.
But eventually, I found that my eagerness to plunge in and speak meant that I managed to be correct with my usage only about 50% of the time. I would hear the "wrong" usage escape my lips before I checked it....because I wanted to speak "at speed".
One day about three years after I had lived here, I got a frantic call from a very distinguished Parisienne lady who I will call Monique. She had retired here with her husband, a doctor and lived in a very elegant apartment ( with a piano that no one played, no less). She had a very gentile way about her and although we were pals, I always used the formal address when speaking to her.
"Mary," she said, "I have a problem. You know that new french lady in our group that has just moved from New Caledonia? Well, she has begun right away to "tutoyer" me and I haven't corrected her. Maybe that is what they do in " La Nouvelle Calédonie". I know I have known you a lot longer and I want to give you permission to "tutoyer" me as well. "
I just laughed and told Monique " You know I am lucky if I get it right half the time but I am grateful that you don't hold it against me. I will happily, use "tu" in the future".
So it does matter to certain French people, but not so much to others. Children are almost invariably addressed informally and people much older than oneself almost always are addressed formally. In some Parisienne homes the children "vouvoyer" their parents I am told. There are exceptions everywhere one turns but especially in the "south" where we are more relaxed.
A safe rule is to always start with "vous" and wait for permission to use the informal. And never use the person's first name unless they give it to you as the preferred means of address.
But neighbors, or people who you have not been formally introduced to, it is more correct to use Madame or Monsieur without the last name. The French are very private and especially those of the older generation do not give there names out on the first meeting as one does in America, especially in a work situation. And in the street even if you know the last name you do not use it....but just say bonjour Madame or Monsieur (unless you are on a first name basis with that neighbor).
Oh, yes, there are lots of ways to go astray with etiquette.
But if you excuse yourself and apologize you will find the French very gracious about your "perceived" mistake. They are secretly very pleased that you want to learn what they all consider "a very difficult" language.
And you will win points just for trying......unless that is, you "butcher" the accent!