When I moved to Italy many years ago, my husband tried to make the whole formality issue simple for me. In Italian ‘Lei’ is the formal ‘you’ and ‘tu’ is the informal ‘you. “Use the LEI form with everyone,” he said. “That way you can’t go wrong.” A few weeks later I found myself at a luncheon, and knowing my Italian was too weak for a decent conversation with an adult, I tried my luck with a young boy. “ LEI, come si chiama?” I said, using the formal YOU to ask him his name. He looked to the left and the right and back at me. “Me?” he said, confused. “My name is Giacomo, e LEI?” (and you?).
At this point it was my turn to look to the left and the right before realizing that he was talking to me and not to another person. “Oh, I’m Trisha.” Then the wise little Giacomo gave me a lesson. “LEI (you formal) do not have to use the LEI (you formal) with me because I am a kid and LEI (you formal) are not.” At that point I was completely lost and Giacomo had better things to do than to try to explain basic Italian grammar to a grown-up.
So I started to figure out my own list of rules for when you use the LEI.
Rule Number One — Giacomo’s rule –One must use the LEI with someone who is older than you to show respect.
Rule Number Two — One must use the LEI to show respect when speaking to people in stores, coffee bars, or with schoolteachers and doctors.
But with schoolteachers and doctors I get terribly mixed up. The problem is LEI is YOU in the formal form but it also means SHE or HER. With two daughters it is hard to know who people are talking about. One time our pediatrician told me, “If LEI (you formal) give this medicine to LEI (her) three times a day, in a week, LEI (she) will be much better. “ But when I responded, “Sorry, I don’t understand, who is LEI (she)?” the doctor thought that I was asking “Who are YOU (formal)?” and responded, “I am your pediatrician.” I had to beg LEI (her) to use the TU (you informal form) with me for the health of my daughters and for my own sanity.
Rule Number Three – my husband’s rule– When you get in a fender-bender with someone (very common in Rome), always use the LEI.
It took me awhile to understand this. I have noticed it is the Italian style to come flying out of the car and go on the attack immediately. Sometimes I have wondered if they think the person who is the loudest and most aggressive must be the wronged party. Gustavo’s solution is to maintain distance with the LEI.
*Gaetano M. is my talented 11-year-old nephew
Post in: Italiano
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.