We only have one way to say ‘you’ in English. Italian has both a formal you ‘Lei’ and an informal you: ‘tu’. Which one should you use when? This is a question many students ask and quite rightly too!
The simple explanation is:
Tu – informal
Lei – formal
However, there’s a little bit more to it than that. Let’s have a look at both in detail.
You would use the informal ‘tu’ with friends, family and children. You would also use it with people around the same age as you in an informal situation, like at a café, pub, shop or bar. You would use it with colleagues at work if they’re a similar age and level to you.
For example, if you’re going to get a gelato (ice cream) and the person serving the gelato is around your age, then you would probably use ‘tu’ with them, and they would probably use ‘tu’ with you.
The conversation might go something like this:
Gelataio: Ciao, cosa prendi?
Cliente: Allora, prendo un cono grande.
Gelatio: Quali gusti vuoi?
Cliente: Limone e fragola, grazie.
Gelataio: Basta così?
Cliente: Ci metti un po’ di panna sopra?
Gelataio: Certo. Vuoi altro?
Cliente: No, grazie. Quanto costa?
Gelataio: Ecco il gelato. Sono 2,50 euro.
Cliente: Prego. Ciao!
Gelataio: Ciao! Buona giornata
Ice cream seller: Hi, what would you like?
Customer: I’d like a big ice cream cone.
Ice cream seller: Which flavours would you like?
Customer: Lemon and strawberry please.
Ice cream seller: Is that all?
Customer: Can you put some cream on top?
Ice cream seller: Of course. Would you like anything else?
Customer: No, thanks. How much is that?
Ice cream seller: Here you go. It’s 2.50 euros
Customer: Here you go. Bye!
Ice cream seller: Bye! Have a good day!
Now let’s look at ‘Lei’. You would use the formal ‘Lei’ with people you don’t know well, such as acquaintances or strangers (unless they’re younger than you). You use it in formal situations, like at the bank, doctors, in a work interview or formal meeting. You also use it as a mark of respect for people older than you or in positions of authority. You would use ‘Lei’ with professors, doctors, police, politicians and lawyers for example.
So, if you’re lost in Italy and the person you ask for directions is older than you, you need to use ‘Lei’. Here’s an example conversation where the young boy uses ‘Lei’ and the older person uses ‘tu’:
Ragazzo giovane: Mi scusi, mi può dire dove si trova la galleria d’arte?
Signore: Certo. Vai sempre diritto, attraversa la piazza e poi gira a destra.
Ragazzo giovane: Grazie. Lei è stato molto gentile.
Ragazzo giovane: Arrivederci!
Young boy: Excuse me, can you tell me where the art gallery is?
Man: Of course. Go straight, cross the square and then turn right.
Young boy: Thank you. You have been very helpful.
Man: No problem!
Young boy: Goodbye!
It’s worth taking a moment to decide which form is best to use with the other person. It doesn’t matter if you get it wrong, we all make mistakes! If you use ‘Lei’ unnecessarily, the other person may say it’s ok to use the ‘tu’ form:
Diamoci del tu – Let’s use the informal ‘tu’ form with each other
Dammi del tu – You can use the informal ‘tu’ form with me
Italians will understand that you’re learning, so try not to worry about offending anyone. If in doubt, you can always ask the other person whether it’s ok to use the informal with them:
Ci possiamo dare del tu? Can we use the informal ‘tu’ with each other? / May we switch to the ‘tu’ form?