Six Guidelines You Can Use to Choose the “Tu” or the “Lei” Form in Italian

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This post originally appeared on The Iceberg Project – check it out here

When first learning Italian, sometimes it can be hard to understand when and how to use the two forms of “you”: “tu” and “Lei.”

In general, “tu” is used for friends, family and people younger than you (like children) and “Lei” (often capitalized to differentiate from “lei” which means “her”) is used for people in positions of power (i.e. police, politicians, postal workers…) and those older than you.

It is also generally accepted that you should also use “Lei” with strangers or people you’ve only met a few times.

However, despite these rules, the hard line can sometimes get a little blurry.

I have had elderly people use “Lei” with me, and I have had children give me the “tu” form even in a formal setting.

To me, it seems like in Italy, the reins are loosening on when to use which form, so, how are we, as Italian learners, supposed to know when to use each one?

Below are some tips I have found to be helpful from my time living in Italy and having to navigate this situation on a daily basis.

Six Tips to Help You Choose “Tu” or “Lei”

– Always give people over 60 the “Lei” form.  

In particular, I have found this age group the most accepting of “Lei” and the most appreciative.

I have many close contacts who fall into this age bracket still have yet to tell me to use the “tu” form, despite knowing each other for years.

This could have to do how they were educated, as in school this generation was strictly required to use the formal tenses. By contrast, when I work with Italian children nowadays, they almost always give me the “tu” form after our first polite introduction, whether I invite them to or not.

– Always use “tu” with children or people until 21 years old.  

I had a friend visiting once who was speaking to a little baby in a stroller, and she cooingly told this toddler, “come sta Lei?” to which the mother nearly died of laughter.

It’s the equivalent of saying “Your majesty, how are you today?” and I’ll never forget my friend blushing the color of summer tomatoes.

I have yet to have anyone correct me for first using “tu” to this age group and generally, it’s a safe bet.

– Always use “Lei” in certain positions of power.  

If you are so lucky as to meet the prime minister, despite his age, it is always better to err on the side of politeness.

Police, municipal workers, bankers and the like will also appreciate this form of courtesy, so use “Lei” freely.

– It is better to err on the side of too polite than risk seeming “maleducato” or rude.  

If I forget, and address someone I shouldn’t have with “tu,” I’ll quickly apologize and switch back to “Lei.”

Besides the elderly, most people have said something along the lines of “dai, diamoci del tu!” which is the equivalent of, “come on, let’s both use tu!” or “come on, we’re friends here!”

– What about the plural, formal you?  

In most of Italy, “voi” is used also for formal “you all.”

Despite what some textbooks teach, formal “Loro” is not common and if it was used, it would be reserved for legit royalty, like a meeting with Kate Middleton and Queen Elizabeth – which is not something many of us will ever do.

Personally, I am happy about this shift, because it means I can’t mess up: it makes no difference if I am talking to a group of professors or group of children; “voi” is acceptable in both cases.

For more details on the grammar parts of the informal vs. the formal, check out this article on Formal vs. Informal Italian.

– What do you say if you want to tell your new friend he can use the “tu” form with you?  

In Italian, it is common to hear the expression, “dammi del tu” or “give me the tu” as in, “no need to be so formal.”

The first time someone said this to me, it was a particularly important person and I was rendered speechless while I pondered that we might actually be friends.

My silence was taken for confusion and the moment became awkward really fast.

Turns out, the appropriate response should have been something like, “grazie” or “anche a me, per favore, dammi del tu!”

Instead, I just stared in wonder while she awkwardly sipped her coffee.

In general these guidelines have served me well, and thankfully, I have yet to truly offend anyone.

How about you? Have you found any other ways to decode who gets “tu” and who gets “Lei?”

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