Dare del tu e dare del Lei

Addressing someone with tu and addressing someone with Lei

Italians address other people in two ways:

  • informally, using the subject tu as in “Di dove sei (tu)?”
  • formally, using the subject Lei (with capital “L”) as in “Di dov’è (Lei?)”

Not to be confused: lei = she vs. Lei = you (Lei with capital “L” is formal). The formal pronoun Lei takes the same verb form as lui/lei, and is used to formally address one person.

To formally address more than one person voi is used, which is both informal and formal. (Loro with capital “L” is technically the formal form for voi, but it is rare and used only in particular situations.)

Every time you address somebody, you have to decide whether to do so formally or informally. For Italians, this is a big deal, as choosing one over the other is a sign of respect (or lack thereof).

You would be INFORMAL with: You would be FORMAL with:
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Young people your age or younger whom you are not friends with (i.e. other students in college; your friend’s younger brother, etc.)
  • Adults you are meeting for the first time
  • Important people you are meeting for the first time (i.e. the Pope, your Congressman, etc.)
  • Adults you don’t know well
  • Professional people such as: doctors, lawyers, professors, your waiter at the restaurant, the post office clerk, etc.

To address someone formally you would normally use the titles signor [Mr.] and signora [Mrs.] plus their last name. Signorina [Miss] is not commonly used anymore (it refers to an unmarried woman). Besides signor and signora, Italians tend to respectfully address a lawyer, a doctor, a professor etc. by their professional titles rather than by signor and signora:

signor Goggi (Sig.) Mr. Goggi
un signore a man
signora Goggi (Sig.ra) Mrs. Goggi
una signora a woman
ingegner Goggi (Ing.) Mr. Goggi
un ingegnere an engineer
professor Goggi (Prof.) Professor Goggi (male professor)
professoressa Goggi (Prof. ssa) Professor Goggi (female professor)
un proffesore, una professoressa a professor
avvocato Goggi (Avv.) Mr. Goggi; Mrs. Goggi
un avvocato a lawyer
dottor Goggi (Dott.) Dr. Goggi (male doctor)
dottoressa Goggi (Dott.ssa) Dr. Goggi (female doctor)
un dottore, una dottoressa a doctor

In Italy, you can be called a dottore or dottoressa just by virtue of having a laurea (university degree).

Speakers can decide to switch from Lei to tu if they feel comfortable enough after a while. For example, you may start a conversation with a person who after 5 minutes of knowing you may say “Ci diamo del tu?” [Shall we speak informally?] or “Le dispiace se ci diamo del tu?” [Do you mind if we speak informally?]. Usually people don’t mind.

There are different greetings depending on the degree of formality of the situation:

  • Ciao [hi; bye] is only used in an informal setting.
  • ArrivederLa [goodbye] is only used in a formal setting when saying goodbye to one person.

Other greetings than can be used in both settings:

  • Buongiorno [good morning]
  • Buonasera [good evening]
  • Buonanotte [good night]
  • A dopo [see you later]
  • A presto [see you soon]
  • Ci vediamo [see you], i.e. Ci vediamo domani [see you tomorrow]
  • Arrivederci [goodbye; bye], to one or more than one person.

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Spunti: Italiano elementare 1 by Daniel Leisawitz and Daniela Viale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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