When to use «tu» and «Lei»
As someone who learned Spanish before Italian, I had always assumed that you use Lei with strangers and tu with family & friends.
The truth is the rule is more nuanced than that. And in fact, using Lei with a stranger in the wrong situation can be just as awkward as using tu.
It's been difficult getting a clear cut answer to this question but these are the basic rules I've come up with after living in Italy for 3 years. Natives please correct me if I'm wrong.
- People over 40 follow a different set of rules than people under 40.
- Clothing plays a bigger role than you may have realized.
When speaking to strangers:
- Use tu if the person is under 40, your age or younger, and obviously not dressed in a formal manner. *this is a big one.
- Use Lei if the person is under 40 but is dressed in a formal manner.
- Use Lei with people who are obviously older than you.
- Use Lei with anyone over 40 years old. (same as rule 3 for many of us)
- Use Lei in formal situations, regardless of age.
- Use Lei when talking to teachers, bosses, customers & clients, if you have a job.
- Use Lei if the other person started by using Lei.
- Use tu if the other person started by using tu.
If you are using Lei and want to use tu, you ask: "Possiamo darci del tu?"
Honestly, I don't think there are so many rules. I mean, if someone is dressed in a formal manner it probably means that the situation itself is formal, or maybe he's a stranger, but I wouldn't base my choice on clothing. Teachers at universities always use Lei with students, even when the students are not dressed formally (and they're often not), just because they're all strangers in a formal situation.
I'd say, use Lei with all strangers, unless they're really young, and always in formal situations. Otherwise, tu will be fine. Now, the question is, what does 'young' mean? Well, if the person is in high school, then feel free to use tu, otherwise I'd always go with Lei. But you're right, there is no strict rule, people just do whatever they feel is right in the moment. I've seen old people refer to young people as Lei when asking for directions on the street, and I've seen strangers refer to each other with tu right away, just because they were the same age and felt like being friendly. In most cases, it just depends on the impression that you want to give.
Thanks Duofaber, It seems to me that everything you've said fits into to what I described above.
Teachers use Lei with students because it's a formal situation - #5
I agree that it's not exactly clothing but how the person is comporting themselves, which commonly correlates with clothing, but isn't quite the same.
Eitherway, strangers use tu with me all the time and it's confusing if you're learning the language and you just think that you should always use Lei with strangers.
The reason I brought up age, is because I notice people over 40 default to Lei much more readily than younger generations.
I'm 23 and often get addressed formally by people not that much younger than me (I look older, that's true, but definitely not 40 :D).
At University we can also be referred to informally... it depends on the teacher and the size of the class (small ones have a familiar feel to them).
It's more about keeping the distance given by the situation, age or relationship between the two.
You feel close to the other person? Use tu. You don't? Use Lei. (it takes time to "calibrate" yourself, don't worry, nobody is gonna get offended, especially if you're learning italian)
I knew it would be complicated.
I'm over 40 and I was constantly worried about insulting a stranger in Italy by not showing them enough respect.
"Respect" is just one of the songs that mom and dad listen to, to the younger generation.
It makes me a bit sad. But the times, they are changing. (Another "dad" song...)
Thanks! The lesson is probably less convoluted than my explanation! hahh.
The rules that I outlined here really come from my personal experience in Italy where people seem to use the formal (Lei) and informal (tu) randomly. I had been trying to make sense of it for so long and one of the best answers I got from an Italian friend was "Not even Italians know which form to use, when." I think the truth is that growing up in Italian culture Italians have a sense for which tense to use. The trouble being a foreigner is that not only are you dealing with a foreign language but also a foreign culture so, at least, I have found it a bit hard to make sense of.
For me it was a little revelation realizing that the older and younger generations were not following the same rules, and I bet this would also change if you were in a small town vs. a big city. Something I probably should have included is that I live in a city.
There exists a mystery novel (sadly I don't know the name of it) written in French (in Quebecois, I think) where a plot is revealed after a bank robber (I think it was) was overheard addressing someone-- who was supposed to be a stranger-- with "tu", while he spoke to the rest of the hostages using a standard formal address.
The detective figures out that the one stranger must actually be known to the robber, and that they were conspiring together.
So the whole case against the man is made when he slipped up and called a supposed stranger "tu".
Which I think is very neat, for a mystery novel, because the author included all of the conversations as they "happened" and if you as the reader didn't catch on when "tu" was used, you were just as confused as the rest of the police in the story and just as surprised when it is revealed that they end up knowing each other.
It would never work in English, which also makes me even more impressed by the author's cleverness.