Speaking Italian: You or You (Tu or Lei)?

May 15, 2015

tuandleiWe talked about the “ciao” earlier. If you were surprised about it not always being appropriate to use “ciao” as a greeting, then you may also be unaware that  like French, Spanish and German – and a lot of other languages – Italian has two forms of address: The “tu” is a familiar form is used with relatives, and people you know well such as friends, lovers, husbands, animals, bids  and children – yours and anyone else´s.

The “Lei”, generally capitalized when written (to distinguish it from the pronoun “lei”, she) , is supposed to be used with everyone else: slight acquaintances, office underlings (or superiors), policemen and tax collectors and professionals such as doctors, lawyers and bankers. My friend Emma’s mother and father met me countless times when I first arrived in Italy. Her mother always called me “Signorina” and gave me the Lei until she died 30 years later. Her father also used the Lei, but after a while, he at least called me by my first name.

The French have an actual verb, tutoyer, that is used when people in France decide to use the informal form of address. The Italians instead use the expression dare del tu, to give the tu or, conversely, to give the Lei, dare del Lei. Often, when a man and a woman first meet, especially if they are people over 40, they will first address one another with the Lei. At some point one of the two will suggest, why don’t we use the “tu”, or will ask permission. “May I give you the tu?”

In my coffee bar, the one I’ve been having my morning coffee in fairly regularly for three decades, I use the “tu” form with everyone who works there, as do they with me. But if I just go into a bar or café where I have never been, I would use the Lei with anyone I dealt with as would they with me. As you get more friendly with someone, you can graduate to using the person’s name – if you’ve learned it – but still addressing him with the more formal “Lei”. Basically you would play it by ear. Or else, at some point, one of you might say to the other, hey, let’s give each other the tu., And the last time I was there, when I left he said “ciao” making it clear that now, even though I don’t go there every day, I am a “regular”. In other words, you have become part of a (extended) family where the “tu” reigns unchallenged.

Today, things have gotten far more casual and many younger people address one another immediately with the informal you. But that doesn’t mean the Lei has disappeared. For example, it is to be used with people you don’t like, with people with whom you have argued or with whom, for other reasons, you do not wish to become familiar and, once again, if you are a woman, with men to whom you don’t want to give the wrong idea about you or your intentions. “Mi dia del Lei”, “you are to address me with the Lei”, you might say frostily after an argument with someone or following an unwanted pass from some guy.

(There is also a third form of address, the voi, similar to the French vous, used primarily in the Italian south or in cases where you think the Lei is a bit too formal. I often use it in neighborhood stores, where I am known but not likely to become a real buddy) together with the person’s first name, possible preceded by the word Signore as in “, what do you think about prime minister Renzi’s plan for the schools?” And the other day, in the lake town of Bolsena where I often go on weekends, a woman who cleans the house of a neighbor, used the  form in addressing me as we chatted about the illness of her employer. But if you are a temporary visitor, you certainly can forget about that.)

As an American coming from a country where almost everyone rushes (excessively) to get on a first name basis (the only alternative being that of addressing someone as Mr. or Miss), when I first moved here I made a couple of serious mistakes with the “tu” form of address. One was with a garage attendant from the south who because I addressed him with the “tu” and probably because I was a woman, started calling me at home until I threatened to tell his boss. The same thing happened with a waiter I knew at the restaurant below my apartment: when I saw that during a break he was reading a book by Alberto Moravia, I stopped to chat, giving him the “tu”. He then took to ringing my doorbell when he got off work and for a while the situation was very sticky indeed.

Another misuse of the “tu” can be laid at the feet of many Italian policemen who, either because of latent racism  – or perhaps because they know their listeners cannot tell the difference, generally address immigrants from third-world countries with the tu, that is, as you would a child or a servant. So even though nowadays people are far less rigid about these distinctions than they once were, you still want to be careful. Police. Many Italians, (particularly older people) and particularly in northern Italy,  still use the “Lei” to strangers and to anyone with whom they are on a formal basis.

Other exceptions to the tu-Lei rule, although they probably won’t affect most short-term visitors, is among people who share the same profession. For example, for reasons of tradition, all journalists in Italy speak to one another with the “tu”, even if you’ve never met but are just talking to a journalist working at one of the country’s multifarious press and PR offices. This tradition goes so far among Italian journalists that you even use the “tu” when you talk to the paper´s editor, even if you barely know him. A similar situation seems to exist among other professionals as well. People with the same duties in the same shop or office generally give each other the tu” as do people with the same profession. So if you were, say, an engineer from Wichita and you get into a  technical conversation with an Italian engineer, you could probably say “ciao” when you take your leave. And the same goes for doctors, lawyers ….. and Indian chiefs.

An American friend named Patricia once recounted to me the linguistic passage that accompanied her along the route she traveled from being a stranger to being accepted as a member of the local “clan”. When she first moved to her apartment in a tiny side street not too far from Piazza Barberini in downtown Rome, the people in the bar downstairs called her “Signorina” and addressed her with the Lei. After a while, this changed to Signorina Patricia, still with the Lei. The next step was hearing herself called by her first name alone, as in Buon Giorno, Patricia, with the older owner of the bar, who was from the south, addressing her with the voi form. Not long afterwards, she became simply Pat, and when she went downstairs for her cappuccino it was “Ciao, Pat, come stai (come stai being the informal form of how are you”. And the final passage was something you can only understand and appreciate if you’ve lived here at length and speak or understand some of the Roman dialect, characterized by a tendency to drop the last syllable or letter of a word. Says Patricia. “It was when “Ciao, Pat” turned into “Ah, Pa’” that I knew I had really, truly had been accepted”.

Tags: , , , , ,

7 Comments on Speaking Italian: You or You (Tu or Lei)?

Any comments? We’d love to hear them!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Anthony Stobart says:

    Sari, you say “As an American coming from a country where almost everyone rushes (excessively) to get on a first name basis (the only alternative being that of addressing someone as Mr. or Miss)”. I am not totally familiar with US modes of address, but I am often called “Sir” in America (and that is not because I have a title) – something that has only happened in the UK (where I live) when I have been in a school.

  • Excellent piece, thanks, and — while I am on — thanks also for the article on “ciao”, uses of.

    On the “tu” and “lei”, there is another potential pitfall: in the workplace, where the manager calls everyone working for him/her “tu”, and they address him as “lei”.

    When I did not know that, I substituted briefly for a friend in the office she worked in, and her boss, whom I had met before and with whom I had chatted, asked me to do something, calling me “tu”. I was slightly taken aback, and responded with “tu”. His turn to be shocked, and he just giggled and we carried on. I guess anyone else would have immediately returned to using the “lei” and I would have got the message, but he was a sweet old soul.

    I did not do it again, but I make sure that if I am ever in that kind of situation, the “boss” knows that he/she does not refer to me as “tu” unless it is to be reciprocal. To me, it’s as racist as people who called black people “tu” automatically.

    On that point, I remember reading an article by Leonard Touadì, an Italian of Congolese origins, when he became Italy’s first black member of parliament in 2008. He was asked how he coped with the fact that people called him “tu”, and yet he was now an “onorevole”. As I recall (unable to find the piece), he said that he just had to deal with it, as this was the way it was.

    • Sari Gilbert says:

      Hi Roberta. Thank you for your interesting and thoughtful reply. Yes, you are right. This is another danger of the misuse of the “tu”, when your boss thinks he can use the “tu” – maybe also because you are a woman” – but you are supposed to use the Lei. This is similar to what often has happened to me in the US with doctors who start calling you by your first name and youfeel you are supposed to continue to call him “Doctor”. This happened with my former gynocologist but I overlooked it because he knew me from when I was 14, but I wouldn’t ever tolerate it again.

  • Carlo Ungaro says:

    Very simple and clear account of an extremely complex subject. Complimenti!