The Polite Form in Italian: Formal vs. Informal Speech
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.
Example of Informal Speech
- Come (tu) stai? – How are you?
- Dove (tu) abiti? – Where do you live?
- (Tu) confermi l’appuntamento? – Do you confirm the appointment?
- Vieni a alla riunione? – Are you coming to meeting?
Example of Formal Speech
- Come (Lei) sta? – How are you?
- Dove (Lei) abita? – Where do you live?
- (Lei) conferma l’appuntamento? – Do you confirm the appointment?
- 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” 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” 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.
Formal You vs. She
- Signora, è pronta? – Are you ready, ma’m?
- Lei è pronta – She 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.