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Sometimes I find Russians will use the more familiar form of address, ты, even when I have addressed them with вы. I felt that in the particular circumstances it was unlikely that they meant that we were now on friendly terms. This might happen for example with a car-park attendant or elderly neighbour. It was explained to me that as a relatively young chap I was expected to show deference to older people in this way and that I should not switch to using ты with these people. Is this correct?

Or otherwise, what are the social circumstances in which one person uses ты and the other вы?

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    In short: yes, it is exactly what considered proper. Even though not everyone follow this pattern. – kirilloid Jun 18 '12 at 20:08
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If you're not acquainted with an adult person (for a male person of your age that would be males in their 30's or above and females in their 20's or above), it's socially inacceptable to address them with ты, though acceptable to respond them with ты once they started first.

For persons of both genders in their 50's or above, it's non polite to call them ты ever (even if they do).

This is especially important for communication between two genders, as an attempt at shortening the social distance without a practical cause (like a work relationship) can be considered as an invitation to romance, so you should not do it unless you mean it.

There are few exceptions to this rule, which, nevertheless, should be used with care:

  • In team games of sport, like football or volleyball, you address a member of your or opposite team with ты, even if they are significantly older. It does not apply to calmer leisure activities like fishing or cards.
  • Male drivers tend to use ты more readily when addressing each other (asking for help or directions). A phrase like Не подскажешь, как проехать в центр? is considered acceptable between two drivers of your age but sounds quite rude between two pedestrians. Some consider this practice derogatory, so it's safest to address people when driving the same as you would do when walking, but mostly it's not a sign of disrespect.
  • An Orthodox priest addresses a member of his parish in a church with ты and they respond him with a вы (regardless of their age and gender). Do not be surprised when visiting churches.
  • Really old people could address you with сынок or внучек, especially when asking for help (Сынок, не поможешь донести сумку?) . It would be acceptable to address them back with бабушка or дедушка and use singular verbs and adjectives (Конечно, бабушка, давай свою сумку). But it is not polite to address them like that first.

In all examples before, вы could be used instead.

All these examples concern addressing complete strangers. If you're acquainted with a person, more complex rules apply.

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  • Yes care is indeed important here. I knew when I used бабушка somehow inappropriately because it was met with the reproach: "Я не твоя бабушка!" – z7sg Ѫ Jun 21 '12 at 18:03
  • @z7sgѪ: sure, that's only appropriate if she calls you внучек first. – Quassnoi Jun 21 '12 at 18:31
  • I think your example with drivers is somewhat an exception. I think that type of conversation comes from generally low 'sophistication' of drivers or their lack of respect to other people. I really don't see a social reason for you to talk any differently while driving a car. – Mxx Sep 23 '12 at 18:04
  • @Mxx: I don't see any reasons for this too, I'm just describing the way the things are. – Quassnoi Sep 24 '12 at 8:39
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A superior speaking to an inferior may prefer to use ты when addressed as вы. Superiority is usually defined by age and position (e.g. employer-employee, teacher-student). Not all people endorse this behavior, though, many superiors will prefer to use the same form of address as you do; usually it is implicit when the chosen form is вы and explicit when the chosen form is ты (They will say something like 'давайте будем на "ты"').

You can also use 'Давайте будем на "ты"' if you are the one being addressed as 'ты', though it may be considered somewhat presumptuous, so be sure you've built some rapport before using it. A more formal way of saying it would be 'Давайте вы будете обращаться ко мне на "ты", а я, в свою очередь, к вам'.

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  • Ah, well I'm fine with this in the classroom but it doesn't sit right with me between adults. There's a noticeable cultural difference here even though in English we no longer have the dual forms of you. – z7sg Ѫ Jun 18 '12 at 1:12
  • You'll need to figure out whether to stick with вы on a case-by-case basis. Do you respect the person? Do you value your relationship with that person? Are you going to be interacting with that person regularly? Take these factors into account and decide if it's worth potentially antagonizing them or if you should carry on as before. – kotekzot Jun 18 '12 at 1:30
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    @z7sg Ѫ: ASAIK originally "you" meant "вы" ("ты" being expressed by "thou"). You was extended to the singular because "thou" was the form used to address someone from a lower class. So eventually everybody wanted to be addressed by "you" = "вы". – Giorgio Jun 18 '12 at 4:23
  • @Giorgio That's true... more info here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/9780/… – z7sg Ѫ Jun 18 '12 at 9:42
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I think it comes down to the amount of familiarity in your relationship with the person. For instance I always ты with my parents and grandparents, though I would always use вы with my more distant relatives or say friends of my parents.

If you don't know the person well, I'd say erring on the side of caution and using вы is a good rule of thumb.

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Note that the actual word ты or вы may (and usually will) be omitted in the sentence in request/demand form, but its meaning would be conveyed by the verb in the same sentence:

Принеси книгу (version of "ты")
Принесите книгу (version of "вы")

Sometimes, the actual "ты" or "вы" may be present, but this would usually be in a more derogatory form, when the speaker is attempting to express his/her superiority or humiliate the addressee and most offten used with "ты":

Ты! Иди сюда!

Sometimes people may use "ты" to express a level of social or emotional closeness; this is especially so when requesting help:

Браток, помоги! (as opposed to "помогите")
(Help me, brother!)

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I want to add that it is established as usual to address each other in the Internet forums and blogs by ты. Using вы in such circumstances may be considered somewhat derogatory, an attempt to draw a line, establish distance between you and your opponent, to show that you have nothing in common.

When in real life you could be beaten, in the Internet you just get called by вы.

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  • In fact usage of вы always 'draws a line' (not only in Internet) - either because speaker politely stays away from addressee's personal space, or because the speaker protects his/hers own personal space. – Artemix Aug 22 '13 at 8:53

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