The Polite Form in Italian: Formal and Informal You

Italian, like many other languages, has different forms of address that reflect the level of formality in a given situation. The use of “tu” is informal, and it’s typically used between friends, family members, or close acquaintances.

On the other hand, when addressing people you don’t know well, or in more formal settings, such as a business meeting or a letter to a government official, you would use the subject pronoun “Lei” (and conjugate the verb in the third person singular) as a sign of respect. This form is considered more formal and polite, and it shows that you are mindful of the social norms and expectations of the situation.

So, in general, choosing the right form of address and verb conjugation is an important aspect of communicating effectively in Italian, and it can convey a lot about the relationship between the speakers and the level of formality in the interaction.

Informal Speech (Italian)Formal Speech (Italian)English Translation
Come (tu) stai?Come (Lei) sta?How are you?
Dove (tu) abiti?Dove (Lei) abita?Where do you live?
(Tu) confermi l’appuntamento?(Lei) conferma l’appuntamento?Do you confirm the appointment?
Vieni a alla riunione?Viene alla riunione?Are you coming to the meeting?

Informal vs. Formal You

The choice between “tu” and “Lei” reflects the level of familiarity and formality in the relationship between the speakers.

“Tu”

“Tu” is used in informal and familiar contexts, for example if you addressing a child, a colleague, or a schoolmate. In general, someone you’re familiar with or somebody who is much younger than you.  Also, we use tu to speak to one person. If we are addressing two or more people, we will switch to the subject pronoun voi

“Lei” 

“Lei” is used in more formal and respectful situations. Generally older people or people with a title like Signor Giorgi, Signora Carli, Dottor Rossi, Avvocata Gialli, etc. or people we meet in formal settings (university professor, doctor’s appointment, an appointment with a real estate agent, etc..)

Addressing people formally, in the plural 

“Voi” and “Loro”

It’s also important to note that “voi” is the plural form of “tu” and is used when addressing two or more people in an informal setting. In a formal setting, the third person plural pronoun “Loro” should be used instead. However, the use of “loro” as a formal form of address has declined in recent years and is not as common as it once was. Therefore, it’s naturally to use “voi” both in formal and informal situations. 

Italian vs. English 

English does not mark this difference in terms of subject pronouns or conjugations.

While there is only one way to address someone in English, regardless of whether the situation is formal or informal, we ask the same questions in two different ways in Italian, depending on whether the conversation is formal or informal, as shown in the following table.

Italian (Informal “TU”)Italian (Formal “LEI”)English Translation
Come stai?Come sta?How are you?
Di dove sei?Di dove è?Where are you from?
Dove abiti?Dove abita?Where do you live?
Che lingue parli?Che lingue parla?What languages do you speak?
Quanti anni hai?Quanti anni ha?How old are you?
Dove vai?Dove va?Where are you going?
Cosa prendi?Cosa prende?What are you taking?
Cosa vuoi?Cosa vuole?What do you want?
Cosa mangi?Cosa mangi?What are you eating?

Formal You vs. She

The Italian formal you (which is “Lei”) and the subject pronoun she (which is “lei, too) shall never be confused. The first one is only used to address someone (one person), and the second one is used in a statement to refer to a third person.

For example,

Signora, è pronta?Formal address to a womanAre you ready, ma’am?
Lei è prontaThird-person statementShe is ready

What does “dare del tu” mean? 

Sometimes a formal conversation can become less formal, and you can hear someone saying: “Possiamo darci del tu?” or “Puoi darmi del tu?“.

Both phrases mean that there is a desire to reduce the formality of the setting.

Generally, we say that “dare del tu“means using the informal subject “tu” and  “dare del Lei”  means using the formal subject “Lei.”

We typically switch from formal to informal when the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. 

Lei is both used for women and men and is often capitalized (although it is not mandatory to write it with a capital “L”).

When to Use the Polite Formin Italian

They say the lei is preferred and expected in formal settings, but defining what constitutes a formal setting in a foreign culture can be tricky. 

This is why I made a list of typical formal settings in Italy. If you ever end up in one of these situations, speaking politely or dare del Lei will be expected and appreciated. 

  • At a job interview
  • At the government office 
  • At a restaurant
  • At the post office or bank
  • When meeting your in-laws for the first time 
  • When speaking to seniors or, in general, older people
  • With a salesperson in a shop (not if he is a teen or very young)
  • In the bakery or pastry shop
  • With officers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals 
  • A side note goes to greetings…
  • A meeting with a real estate agent 

Formal and Informal Italian Greetings 

The choice of greeting can also reflect the level of formality in a given situation. “Ciao” is a very informal greeting and is typically used between friends or close acquaintances.

In a formal setting, such as a business meeting or when addressing someone older or with a title, it would be more appropriate to use the greetings “Buongiorno” (good morning) or “Buonasera” (good evening), depending on the time of day. Similarly, when saying goodbye, the informal “Ciao” would not be appropriate in a formal setting. In these situations, it’s better to use “Arrivederci” (goodbye) as a sign of respect.

About the Author

Serena Capilli

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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Ciao, I'm Serena!

I’m the creative force behind both this blog and my collection of short stories in simple Italian for language learners, available on Amazon.

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