Formal Italian Greetings & Expressions: Lei vs Tu

Italian, like many other romance languages, has formal and informal registers.

The purpose of formal speech is to show respect. It may be used when addressing a stranger (especially someone older than you) or superiors such as your boss. It is also the default register for those who provide a service such as shopkeepers or waiters. 

Informal speech, by contrast, implies a certain level of familiarity, so it is mainly reserved for friends and family. One exception is young children who naturally use informal language amongst themselves and with their elders until they reach their preadolescent years.

If you are unsure which register to use, it is always best to err on the side of caution and use formal Italian speech. This way, you only risk appearing a little stiff, which is far better than coming across as rude!

Italian Informal vs Formal Speech: Tu vs Lei

When talking to someone informally, the correct personal pronoun to use is the second person singular tu. Note that in Italian, pronouns such as tu may be omitted from the sentence because the conjugated verbs already indicate person and number.

(Tu) sei la persona più interessante che io abbia mai conosciuto.

You are the most interesting person I’ve ever met.

The formal register on the other hand requires you to use the polite singular Lei with a capital L. Verbs combined with Lei follow the same conjugation rules as the third person singular lui (he) or lei (she)*. In this case, the pronoun is not omitted at the beginning of the sentence to emphasise that you’re talking directly to the person and addressing him or her in a formal way.

Lei è la persona più interessante che io abbia mai conosciuto.

You are the most interesting person I’ve ever met.

*Note: even though they look and sound similar, you can always tell whether someone means Lei (you formal) or lei (third person feminine singular) from the context of the sentence. If you were talking directly to someone and addressed them as Lei for example, he or she wouldn’t assume that you were talking about another (female) person.

Possessive pronouns also change depending on whether you use tu or Lei. For tu, you would use tuo / tua / tuoi / tue depending on the gender and number of the following noun whereas for Lei you would use Suo / Sua / Suoi / Sue.

Non so dov’è la tua borsa, ma ho visto il tuo cappello da qualche parte.

Non so dov’è la Sua borsa, ma ho visto il Suo cappello da qualche parte.

I don’t know where your bag is but I saw your hat somewhere.

Italian Informal vs Formal Speech: Voi vs Loro

Unlike English, Italian has the second person plural voi which is similar to saying all of you, or you guys / y’all in American English.

(Voi) avete finito con i vostri piatti?

Have you (all) finished with your plates?

In Italian, the most acceptable way to refer to a group of people in both informal and formal situations is with voi.

However you may encounter situations where the formal second person plural Loro* is used instead, although this form is now antiquated and falling out of fashion amongst the younger generation.

Commesso: Loro dove abitano? – Coppia: Abitiamo a Firenze.

Salesman: Where do you live? – Couple: We live in Florence.

*Note: although they follow the same conjugation pattern, Loro doesn’t mean the same thing as loro (third person plural).

In old-fashioned Italian, especially amongst older people in the south of Italy, voi may be used in the same way as Lei to express the second person formal.

The formal “hello” in Italian

Even those who have never studied Italian are familiar with the greeting ciao (hello). What you may not realise however is that ciao is informal and should only be used with people you know well.

When greeting someone formally in Italian, it is safer to use expressions such as:

  • Buongiorno = Good morning / Good day
  • Buonasera = Good evening
  • Salve = hello
  • Mi fa piacere vederla. = I’m happy to see you.

Some informal alternatives are as follows, but in most cases they would be preceded by ciao:

  • Mi fa piacere vederti. = I’m happy to see you.
  • Che bello vederti. = How nice to see you.
Senior Couple Video Calling Waving Hello To Laptop Webcam Communicating Online With Distance Family Members Sitting On Floor In Living Room At Home. Remote Communication Concept

The formal “how are you” in Italian

There are many ways to say “how are you” using the informal register including (tu) come stai, come va, tutto bene and so on.

Find out more about the different ways of saying “how are you” here.

When addressing someone in a formal context, it is always best to start with (Lei) come sta. If you are feeling confident however, you can follow up with expressions such as:

  • Tutto a posto spero. = Everything is fine, I hope.
  • Come procedono le cose? = How’s everything going?
Business people making an agreement

Formal “I’m sorry” and “excuse me” in Italian

In Italian, you can use the expression mi dispiace (I’m sorry) in both formal and informal contexts to express sorrow upon hearing something unpleasant, such as another person’s bad news. To add emphasis, try using adverbs such as tanto (a lot, very) or veramente (truly).

  • Mi dispiace (tanto) per la tua perdita. = I’m (very) sorry for your loss. (informal)
  • Mi dispiace (tanto) per la Sua perdita. = I’m (very) sorry for your loss. (formal)

When apologising, the different registers come into play once again. Using the noun scusa (pardon, excuse) and the verb scuscar(si) (to excuse, apologise), you can create the following formal expressions which translate as both “I’m sorry” and “excuse me” depending on the context:

  • Scusi! = Sorry! / Excuse me!
  • Mi scusi! = I’m sorry! Excuse me! (lit: pardon me)
  • (Le) chiedo scusa. = I beg your pardon, I ask you to forgive me.
  • Mi perdoni. = Forgive me.

And of course there are informal equivalents for each of these expressions:

  • Scusa! = Sorry! / Excuse me!
  • Scusami! = I’m sorry! Excuse me! (lit: pardon me)
  • (Ti) chiedo scusa. = I beg your pardon, I ask you to forgive me.
  • Perdonami. = Forgive me.
I'm sorry, but it's true, you have serious problems with health

Formal “thank you” in Italian

When speaking to family and friends, it is usually enough to say grazie (thanks) or grazie mille / molte grazie / mille grazie / grazie tante (thank you very much). You may also hear ti ringrazio which means I thank you.

In formal situations, it is very common to hear the polite expression La ringrazio (I thank you) or La ringrazio, molto gentile (I thank you, very kind), although grazie mille and its variations are perfectly acceptable as well.

Cheerful young woman expressing gladness while looking at her boyfriend with rose bouquet

Formal “goodbye” in Italian

Many of the formal expressions for hello can also be used to say goodbye in Italian:

  • Buongiorno = Good morning / Good day
  • Buonasera = Good evening
  • Salve = Goodbye

Other popular expressions you can use include:

  • Arrivederci = Goodbye
  • Arrivederla = Goodbye
  • Buonanotte = Goodnight
  • A presto = See you soon (also informal)
  • A domani = See you tomorrow (also informal)
  • A fra poco = See you in a bit (also informal)

And just as you can say ciao when greeting friends and family, you can equally say ciao (or the doubled-up ciao ciao) when bidding someone farewell.

Find out more about the different ways of saying goodbye here.

Colleagues saying good bye after a meeting

Other formal Italian expressions worth learning

Below are a few additional expressions that might occur in conversation with someone you don’t know very well.

  • Where are you? = (Lei) dov’è?
  • Would you like…? = (Lei) vorrebbe…? Le piacerebbe…?
  • Do you have…? = (Lei) ha…?
  • Do you speak English? = (Lei) parla inglese?
formal italian greetings

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