Anthony Besson calls most people “vous”. As a young man, it is a sign of respect to those older than him, and he’s often meeting new people through his work in PR in Paris.
Yet this all changes on social media. “I always use ‘tu’ on Twitter,” Besson says. “And not just because it takes up fewer of the 140 characters!”
Last year, Laurent Joffrin, director of left-leaning news magazine Nouvel Observateur, turned on a follower, asking who authorised him to use “tu” - “Qui vous autorise a me tutoyer?” (Joffrin, of course, used “vous”.)
A storm erupted. Joffrin the accuser was himself accused of being rude and condescending.
“The fact that he was a public figure who was part of an elite probably didn’t help as he expected some respect and viewed ‘tu’ as an insult,” Besson says…
In Spain, the same thing is happening to modes of address online. The familiar “tu” dominates, with the formal “usted” a rarity.
As in France, the normal style of writing on Twitter in Spanish is “informal, direct and very personal”, says Prof Jose Luis Orihuela of Navarra University, author of a book called Mundo Twitter (Twitter World).
Melchor Miralles Sangro, host of the Cada manana morning programme on ABC Punto Radio in Spain, who has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter says he usually uses “tu” online but is quite relaxed about forms of address. “I don’t mind which form of ‘you’ people use to address me,” he says. “I have no problem with either.”
In Italian, meanwhile, the move towards “tu” was under way long before the arrival of the internet and social media. They merely reinforce an existing trend.
“In Italian, even among strangers or among people belonging to different generations, the informal ‘tu’ is much more frequent than the formal ‘lei’,” Casilli says.
“The shift in the use of informal language online is… less dramatic than in French.”
- In Russian the formal “vy” remains standard between strangers online
- Language is liable to be even more formal than in face-to-face contact on the Japanese social networking site, Mixi