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Formal you - how often is it used?

Hi everyone. I am really curious how often and in what situations the formal "you" is actually used in Italy. I'm afraid to offend anyone, but I'm equally afraid of sounding like someone's great-grandmother.

Any insight on this, particularly as it relates to northern Italy, specifically the Veneto region?

February 14, 2015



I think it's mostly used when you are talking to someone you need to respect, but not someone you know quite well. In Italian the formal words are only used with people you need to respect and people you don't know. If you said "ciao" to your new boss they would be very confused. I know this because I'm doing Italian at school and we only just covered it last lesson!


Voi is rarely used nowadays. (There are some specific circumstances... Cardinals, judges, etc...)

Lei will always sound better when talking to strangers.


If someone talks to me on the street, are they Lei? If I go into a store?


It depends, there isn't a rule. I can tell that I use Lei with older (strangers) people, and in all other situations which require to talk polite.


I've been wondering about this as well. Later this year my wife and I will be visiting Rome for a couple weeks for vacation. My thought is that I should probably be using the formal "you" much of the time but I'm not sure.


Nooo... You'll sound weird to roman people! ehehe! (In Rome we use very rarely even Lei...)


Thanks! That's good to hear, it definitely simplifies things.


I am Italian (sorry for my bad English)
if you come in italy as an english native speaker, your bigger problem will be to avoid people (like me), who want to speak and improve their English.

The friendly tu (informal you) is never rude, especially when said by foreigners.
The general rule would be that if you're talking to an unknown person older than you, you must use the Lei (formal you).
Same thing if you talk with a doctor in the hospital, a lawyer in his office, your boss at work, a policeman or an employee of an information service.
I personally use "Lei" (formal you) with customers and suppliers and also on the phone.


Your English is great! I'm hoping everyone will forgive me for my bad Italian, when I get around to trying it. :)

I won't be working, so aside from something like a doctor or a lawyer (which totally makes sense), is there anywhere that I would be likely to be using Lei? Maybe meeting some of my husband's colleagues that I haven't met before? Or is that only if they're older than me?

Thank you for the comment about how people are unlikely to be bothered if you say "tu" and you're a foreigner, because that's been my experience with Spanish speakers as well. That makes me feel better about the odds of people forgiving any screwups!


A joke that we say in Italy (but it has a grain of truth)

The people that you know are divided in two categories:
1) those who you use the informal "tu" with (dai del tu)
2) those who you use the formal "Lei" with (dai del Lei)
When you use "tu" you cannot go back, it is for life.
When you use "Lei", the more time passes, the more difficult it is to escape from it.

You can start with everybody with the formal "Lei", but I'm sure that 90% of people (neighbors, husband's colleagues etc.) will say "non mi dare del Lei" (don't use the formal you with me).
Surely you have to use the informal you (tu) with kids.


We talk about using Lei but would it be wrong just to use 3rd person singular eg Parla inglese? or must you say 'Lei parla inglese?. It's a bit too late now as I was addressing a policeman at the time! (But i would like to know for the future). :)


I watched a video of the Pope visiting a shanty town on the edge of Rome. He asked the people there to pray for him, and they replied, "E Lei per noi." If ever there were a time to use "Lei," that was it!


The most important is that you are polite. You can even be informally polite!
I personally use Lei only with teachers, the bus driver and grumpy old people.
If I use the formal pronoun, I do not like you.


So "tu" is used as informal singular and "lei" as formal singular, but only rarely. But what about the plural? Informally, it would be "voi" but in the plural formal would you use "loro" or "voi" again?


Usually you'll use voi, not loro although there are some rare circumstances, such as meeting a couple of cardinals or judges where you'd use loro. Also if you wanted to be coldly polite perhaps to people you know but don't like. That being said, don't misunderstand, there is nothing rare about the use of lei. It's use depends on age and age difference, social status and to a large degree, region.


Thank you, Roadlawyer. Given the circumstances you mention when loro would be used, I doubt if I would ever need to use it! Just to summarize, in a restaurant or a shop, for example, I would use Lei (sing.) and voi (plural) and expect to be spoken to as Lei or voi if I were with a friend? I would also use voi if I were talking to a group of friends/young people/equals?


"Voi" nowadays is used only for the plural "you". Formal "voi" is really obsolete. As an Italian, never in 21 years have I used it but to address more than one person. In everyday life, "lei" will suffice. And I don't think anyone would be offended if you, as a tourist, used "tu" ;) If you were in a group of friends, you'd use "tu" to address one of them, "voi" to address more than one. In a restaurant you should use "lei" for a single person and will be addressed as "lei"; "voi" is again for more than one person.


In a restaurant or shop you'll always be addressed as Lei. My practice is to return the Lei, for example I would say grazie Lei not grazie tu when someone has served me. This may be regional or it just may be me, but you're always safe from potentially offending someone if you use Lei. And yes, voi is correct in almost all situations. As a tourist you'll have much more latitude however, and there's very little risk that you'll offend if you use the wrong pronoun. Italians tend to be very forgiving to people trying to speak the language.


I always use Lei until I'm invited to use tu, and that appears to be the norm, although the Genovese tend to be a bit formal.

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