I always dread when I either meet someone new, or when I see someone I haven't seen in a while here in France. If they're family or something like that, it's not nearly as stressful, but I always feel a bit awkward when meeting someone. Should we just shake hands? Is it proper to "faire la biz?" I have always found the easiest way to handle it, obviously, is to let the other person take the lead. Then you know exactly where you stand. I never thought about how complicated this is when meeting someone until I had to learn a system that doesn't always quite line up to my American notions.
First and foremost, I should admit that even in the US, I'm a bit unsure of what to do. Nine times out of ten, I'll nod my head and say "'s'up" and just leave it at that. If it's someone I'm trying to impress, of course there's a handshake, but well, you know, it's complicated. It's not that I'm shy, but more that I never know how to deal with people when I first meet them. I really think the best phrase I ever heard to describe how Americans generally interact from each other comes from Scott Adams: "I was raised in a country, where touching meant you're standing on the same carpet. Any closer, and you were engaged."
When I came to France, his family understood the nature of the relationship between my partner and I. The first people I met were family, so pretty much the rules worked out the same as with my family. The best way to handle it, is of course to let the other person decide the necessary proximity between you. After all, you're on the outside of this culture looking in. It's rude to act like you know the rules. If the other person extends a hand though, it does send a pretty clear message.
I was meeting my partner's aunts and uncles when we came back for the first time. The aunts and the female cousins who were there did the kiss thing, and husbands was a handshake, as with all the males there. Though one aunt and uncle weren't able to make it until later. So we talked about a lot of stuff, and the night continued swimmingly. So the uncle comes in first and makes the rounds, and it's a handshake of course. The aunt though, was as well.
So I was a little puzzled, but the night continued. We talked some more and eventually we went to see the aunt and uncle's new house they had built. So we were over there, and they started asking questions of course, and well, as it continued, I kept noticing that they were directing questions at me and using vous. It took me two or three questions to realize that they in fact were using the second person formal vous, and not referring to my partner and I, or to the three of us including my mother in law. By the end of the night, we were saying tu, and closed the night with the kissing thing, and that was that.
This also may be something I haven't really defined before, so stop me if I've already explained about how the kissing thing works here. When you kiss on both sides of the face, you actually don't kiss the person's cheek. You only make the kissing noise on both sides of the face. The only exception is if you are close enough to the person, usually blood or marriage, where that situation changes. You might kiss anywhere from 2 to 4 times. It varies by region, age, and affectation.
Now, when to vouvoyer. when to tutoyer, is hard enough to remember, but throw in that you have to keep using the same form consistently (Happily people are understanding if you make an effort, and are usually pretty cool about it.) and it's enough to have you sobbing between bites of baguette So the question becomes; how does know when one is cleared to start using the informal tu? The easiest way is to listen when they speak. If they use tu, you're golden. However, the clearest way to know for sure, will always be, much like Betty Everett sang all those years ago, it's in his kiss.
Now originally, the concept of two forms of reference comes from royalty. As we all remember, the queen's famous line, in the US at least, "We are not amused." Sometimes, we call this the royal we. Most languages of Indo-European descent have this remnant. For those who studied German, it's called duzen und siezen. English is one of the few languages that ditched the form. In fact, depending on where you are in the Spanish speaking world, the terms change. On the mainland, there's vosotros, but in South America, you need to say ustedes.
The one thing that always bothers me about this though, is that I remember my German teacher calling it "the respective form." Now, in reading this, it partially makes sense. This is the form you're supposed to use with someone older or a boss. It's showing respect to the other person. If you are really annoyed with someone, you show it by using the tu form if you don't know them well. People will be horrified if you are a native speaker of French and don't use vous. Using tu with a stranger is kind of like saying, "I have no respect for you."
Vous though,can be taken much more strongly. Vous implies not only that you don't know the person, and therefore you're forced to give them standard politeness, but furthermore you have no interest of making his or her acquaintance.
So in France, social distance is something hugely important. If you're in douby, let the other person decide where you are to be kept. It's safer for all concerned. And remember, no matter what your teachers and professors may tell you, tu and vous function less about respect, but more the ability to push someone away with a single word.