The polite form in Italian: formal vs. informal “you”
Italian is one of those languages that changes subject pronouns (and verb conjugations) depending on whether a conversation happens in a formal or informal setting.
So, in Italian, we must speak or write politely if the situation requires it.
The rule of thumb is:
If you’re addressing friends and family or people we are familiar with, you have to use the subject pronoun TU (and conjugate the verb in the second person singular).
- Come (tu) stai? – How are you?
- Dove (tu) abiti? – Where do you live?
- (Tu) confermi l’appuntamento? – Do you confirm the appointment?
When you’re addressing a person you don’t know, or an older person, or someone to whom you want to show respect (a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, etc.), you should use a different subject pronoun, the so-called polite “you” or polite form (or “forma di cortesia”, in Italian).
The polite form is made by using “LEI” as the subject and by conjugating the verb in the third person singular.
- Come (Lei) sta? – How are you? (formal)
- Dove (Lei) abita? – Where do you live? (formal)
- (Lei) conferma l’appuntamento? – Do you confirm the appointment? (formal)
Informal vs. Formal You
“Tu” is used when you address someone you know, like 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.
“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 like Signor Giorgi, Signora Carli, Dottor Rossi, Avvocata Gialli, etc.).
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.
Formal You vs. she
- Signora, è pronta? – Are you ready, ma’m?
- Lei è pronta – She is ready
Switching from the formal you to the informal you
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 form (or “Lei”) in 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…
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 the polite form, you should always say buongiorno or buonasera and arrivederci.