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I was pretty sure I understood this rule pretty well, but I had a confusing incident that made me question my understanding.

I was auditing a session of a nighttime Russian language class for adults (I think the students were between 24 and 40 years old). I also am an adult in that age range. I assumed since I had never met any of the other students before, I should address them with вы. However when I did so the professor (native Russian) was instantly adamant that I use ты instead, and no one seemed surprised by this. Can someone explain why ты would be appropriate in this instance and вы inappropriate?

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    Personally, I would say that an average adult native Russian speaker's intuitive behavior would be to use вы while talking to a person they never met before for the first time (although one could easily switch to using ты later in the class, e.g. after working in pairs for a while). So, as per shabunc's answer, the professor most likely wanted to give an informal touch to the class - however, I doubt that all the students actually found that comfortable in their heart. – Vadim Landa Aug 14 '17 at 11:11
  • Did professor offer any explanation why "ты" and not "вы" should be used? Because this would require an explanation. Universal use of "ты" is definitely wrong. – Alexander Aug 14 '17 at 17:38
  • There was no explanation given. – MAA Aug 14 '17 at 17:39
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"Вы" is indeed the polite form of you - in the majority of cases if one don't know somebody, вы will be always preferable. That does not, however, mean that ты-form is unacceptable in some cases - and communicating with fellow students in a language-learning classes belongs perfectly well to such cases.

Most probably your teacher just wanted you all feel more relaxed, to have a friendlier atmosphere.

Also, keep in mind that some Russian speakers, who still speak Russian perfectly well but live in English-speaking countries tend to use ты instead of вы in all cases. This is also something worth to take into consideration.

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  • Why would speakers in the US always use ты? – MAA Aug 14 '17 at 15:20
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    @MAA I guess it's cultural influence of English - from what personally I've encountered in some Russian communities "вы" is even considered offensive - it sounds like you sort of snobbish / arrogant. – shabunc Aug 14 '17 at 15:32
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These is nothing unusual about asking someone if they want to switch to ты soon after an initial exchange of courtesy language using вы. It's like when someone calls you Mr. or Dr. and you say "Oh, just call me Paul" (or whatever you first name is). It's normally the older person who suggests this. The usual way of saying it is: Может быть, (перейдем) на ты? - Конечно.

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  • This is really good information, thank you :) it doesn't specifically address my question though because no exchange like this took place. Still good to know! – MAA Aug 14 '17 at 15:22
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  • thou ( ты ) implies close relations, not intimate, but quite friendly, transcending from official co-working into personal realm and safe zones. Camaraderie.
  • you ( вы ) implies somewhat cold official relations. You work together in some area, but other than that you keep "proper" society-normal communications level of civilized strangers.

Compare it to full/diminished forms of personal names, like Николай/Коля, Мария/Маша. Depending on persons relations different names would fit better.

So, some societies may like to stress their "brotherhood", "we are one gang". While other societies may stress how they are not pushing their peers into "safety zone" of each other, how they are focused in the token activity and do not "push their nose" in you personal activities outside of the scope.

There is no one true answer, this point happens to ignite holy wars among native speakers too. Somewhere sharing "safe zones" would be frowned upon, somewhere it would be explicit distancing form others.

Personally I had that weird experience with my father's peer, who complained to my father I was informally addressing him via thou and simple name, breaking the proper boundaries. So I started calling him properly, via you/n+p. Few days later he complained again, about my weirdiness. Guess like when his "appreciate my position and age" ego was satisfied, the alienation in proper addressing forms started bugging him in turn. Or maybe he was just moody person. Anyway, in that interaction I switched to staying on "society approved" polite safe ground ever since.

One more situation, especially around women, is that there is a trait referring elder persons by explicitly polite means, like using "вы" or even using name+patronymics instead of name alone. Some persons feel like polite ways of addressing is intentionally or not stressing their aging.

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  • I like the distinction that ты is friendly but not intimate. It seems like you're also sort of saying that вы is unfriendly and cold. Is that always true? Or just in informal situations? – MAA Aug 14 '17 at 15:24
  • @MAA that is dependent upon what is considered traditional norm in the place. The norm is more or less neutral, it is "just state of things". The deviation is an action. If everything is saying thou and you reject that and say you - it is a claim. So is when everyone say you and you deviate and say thou. So, in strictly formal situations "you" and full names are used, as it is formal norm. More so, it would not mean unfriendliness, just abiding by the rules. Rules prevail personal relations in strictly formal situations. Friendliness or unfriendliness is just kept outside for a while. – Arioch Aug 15 '17 at 9:12
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In classes of constant composition it is usual to use ты as a rule. But this is because the students are usually young. When the class includes post-30 y.o. adults, using ты may be unacceptable and offensive. So, your case is somewhat borderline and depends on the age of your classmates. Addressing a 24 y.o. classmate as ты is totally acceptable and natural, but addressing someone of 40 would be somewhat weird and may be considered offensive.

It also depends on how the person wants to look like, their clothing style, etc: whether they want look younger or more solid, aged. It may be advised in some cases to address the students in the same class differently, depending on their age and/or their attitude towards their age (which you can detect from their clothing style).

Inappropriately using ты brings familiarity and may indicate that you think the person is younger than they want to look like and on par with yourself, so addressing a professor this way is inappropriate.

Inappropriately using вы brings distance and may indicate that you think the person is older than they want to look like. This may be offensive to young women, for instance and sounds unfriendly if they want to befriend you.

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