HOW TO SPEAK POLITELY IN ITALIAN – YOU FORMAL AND INFORMAL
Italian is one of those languages that change subject pronouns (and verb conjugations) depending on how a conversation happens within a formal and informal setting.
So, in Italian, we can speak or write politely if the situation requires it.
The rule of thumb is..
when addressing friends and family or people we are familiar with, we use the subject pronoun TU (and we conjugate the verb accordingly)
- Ciao, (tu) confermi l’appuntamento di domani? – Hi, are you confirming our appointment tomorrow?
When addressing a person we don’t know, or an older person or someone to whom we want to show respect (a doctor, a lawyer, a politician…), we use a different subject pronoun, the so-called pronoun of courtesy (pronome di cortesia in Italian) or YOU polite: LEI.
- Buona sera, (LEI) conferma l’appuntamento di domani? – Hi, are you confirming our appointment tomorrow?
English, does not mark this difference in terms of subject pronouns. That’s why, for example, there is just one way to translate in English “Are you coming to dinner?”, while in Italian there are two.
Vieni a cena? – [2nd personal singular, informal]
Viene a cena? – [3rd person singular, formal]
YOU INFORMAL = TU
TU is used when you address someone we know or a kid, a colleague, or a schoolmate. Somebody, we are familiar with.
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.
YOU FORMAL = LEI
LEI is used when you speak to someone (just one person) that we don’t know or to whom we don’t show respect: generally older people or people with a title Signor Giorgi, Signora Carli, Dottor Rossi, Avvocata Gialli, etc.
SHE AND YOU FORMAL
You formal and the subject pronoun she 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.
Signora, è pronta? – Are you ready, Ma’m?
Lei è pronta → She is ready
YOU INFORMAL vs. YOU FORMAL
SWITCHING FROM “LEI” TO “TU”
Sometimes a formal conversation can become less formal, and you can hear someone saying:
Possiamo darci del tu? Or
Dammi 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 to use the informal subject pronoun TU and – dare del Lei – means to use the formal subject pronoun LEI
Lei is both used for women and men, as a pronome di cortesia
WHEN TO USE “YOU POLITE” (OR LEI) IN ITALIAN
They say the LEI is preferred and expected in formal settings, but defining what is a formal setting in a foreign culture can be tricky.
Typical formal settings in Italy – if you ever ended up in one of these situations, speaking politely or dare del Lei will be expected and appreciated.
- At a job interview
- At 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)
- At the bakery or pastry shop
- With officers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals
If you are not using what you to use in Italian, you can always ask:
– possiamo darci del tu? – can we speak informally?
The typical example is when the situation you are facing is formal but the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Therefore it’s possible to switch to a more informal way of speaking.
A side note goes to greetings…
Italian has formal and informal greetings, and you can’t mix them up. Ciao is a very informal greeting, and you shouldn’t use it in a formal situation. If you are using you politely, you should say always buongiorno o buonasera and arrivederci.