As many probably already know, in Italian when talking to someone you can refer to the person either using “Tu”, the informal you, or “Lei”, the formal way.

– (Tu) Sei molto gentile! (You’re very kind! – INFORMAL)
– (Lei) È molto gentile! (You’re very kind! – FORMAL)

I put “Tu” and “Lei” between parentheses because usually when speaking they are omitted, as the conjugation of the verb (“Sei” and “È”), not omittable, make it obvious which person of the verb we are using.

Easy enough, right?


As a foreigner speaking Italian, you can probably get away with what are technically known as “sociolinguistic mistakes” (errors not concerning grammar, but the social use of the language), and definitely your message can get through anyway.
But those small flaws are exactly what gives away that you are not a native speaker.
In simple words, it’s what make you sound as a foreigner.

So, back to the point, the formal/informal rule is quite simple, grammatically speaking; what makes it complicated is that you don’t know when the situation requires you to use a formal register or when you can relax and go with the “Tu”.

The answer is: it depends on the context.
I know it sounds stupid and simplistic, but it’s not, it is actually extremely complicated, and it’s the reason why learning to use a language effectively and with competence is complicated and takes time and effort.
Moreover, expect to find recalls to context very often in these posts, because helping you learning how to deal with the context, how to recognize situation, how to interpret the world around you with and Italian point of view is exactly the reason why I keep this blog and I do what I do.

As general rules, we can safely say that Italians tend to be formal, and they like their formalities A LOT.

Age is a good starting point: unless the person is about your age or younger, start out with a formal “Lei” and you’ll be safe. It will also make look polite and on top of the language. Avoid “ciao”, informal, and stick with “Buongiorno”/”Buonasera” (good day, good evening – the switching point is lunch: after lunch, 13-14, you use “Buonasera”). When leaving: “Arrivederci”.

With people of your age, at least if you are under 30, you can be informal, unless the situation is a very formal one: if you are working in a formal context, and especially in public, even with younger colleagues it might be required to show formal respect. Especially in public, it looks elegant, and among Italian it matters.

With people older than you, the situation, in possible, becomes even trickier.
Of course you will start out showing off your good manners, using a formal register when talking to them.
Then, sometimes, you will be told “di dargli del tu”, to use “tu” when talking to them (literally, the Italian expression “dare del tu/lei” translates with “to give the tu/lei to someone”)
Common phrases you will hear are:

– Dammi pure del tu – Go ahead and use “tu” with me
– Se mi dai del lei mi fai sentire vecchio – If you use “lei” with me you make me feel old.
– Chiamami pure “nome” – Go ahead and call me “whatever their first name is”

What does that mean? That formality barriers come down and now even if he or she is your boss or there are 30 years of difference between you from now on that person will be like your college buddy?
It simply means that “formally” they want to look young, but they will still keep their social distance from you. Nothing has changed, they still consider themselves to have the right to paternalize you, if needed; as a matter of fact, being them who tell you if and when changing the way you call them, it is still them holding and using social power.
It’s a formal use of informality.

Again, let me say that this is not a ever-applying rule: you still need to consider what kind of person you have to do with, the relationship between that person and you, the context in which you interact.
Let’s say that using this as a starting point you can keep on the safe side, and in social interaction it is extremely important, until you have a better idea of how things work around you.
Of course things change, but in culture things change more slowly, because they change from the inside.
Formality will get you far. Mastering it is a safe investment.

For the generations right now in their 40’s/50’s, meaning people born in the 1960’s,1970’s, getting old has become a social taboo.
Sometimes the phenomenon pushes even further, with 60/70-year-old people not accepting their age, acting and dressing as if they were still in their 20’s/30’s.

An old but famous and beautiful Italian actress, Anna Magnani, has once told her make up artist a line that afterwards became a classic quote “Careful not to hide not even one of my wrinkles: it took me all my life to get them there”.
The times have changed.

Grammatically speaking, check out and practice the use of the singular third person of the verbs (“LEI”, in case of singular use), and the plural second person of the verbs (“VOI”, in case of plural use).
Depending on how fluent your Italian is, you will have to include the indicativo, condizionale, and congiuntivo.

Pay particular attention when you want to invite someone to do something, give a piece of advice, make a suggestion: all these cases, depending of course on how you word them, might require you the use of congiuntivo, which takes a little effort but pays back, as it is something that you truly use on a daily basis and will make you look confident and competent with your shiny, formal, and elegant Italian.

Think of:
– Prego, entri/passi/faccia pure – Please, come in/go ahead/do as you like .

In Italian mistakes with the subjunctive are a common theme for humor: here’s a quote, from a “cult Italian comedy movie” (quoting Wikipedia), Fantozzi:

[at the tennis court]
Filini: Allora, ragionere, che fa? Batti?
Fantozzi: Ma… mi dà del tu?
Filini: No, no! Dicevo: batti lei?
Fantozzi: Ah, congiuntivo!
Filini: Sì!


Filini: Come on, ragioniere (literally, “accountant”, used back in the days as a title), what are you (formal) waiting for? Are you (informal!) going to serve?
Fantozzi: But…are you (formal) using “Tu” towards me?
Filini: No, no! I meant: are you going to serve (uses “Lei”, formal, but continues to conjugate the verb as if the subject was “Tu”, informal. The conjugation is “Tu batti“, “Lui/Lei batte: Filini should have said “batte?”)?
Fantozzi: Ah, subjunctive!
Filini: Yes!

In the example above Fantozzi tries to save his face blaming the misunderstanding on the use of subjunctive, notorious also among Italians as hard to master; unfortunately in this case subjunctive had nothing to do with the mistake: Filini was simply asking a question, not suggesting anything, the only case in which the subjunctive would have been needed.

If it deserves to be subject of humor, it means it is culturally relevant! Work on it!