Don’t get too familiar with people, at least initially…
Over familiarity is perhaps the biggest mistake that I witness English speakers making when they come to Italy. I blame Hollywood and tv series that perpetuate exaggerated Italian stereotypes. Many such portrayals seem to give license to newbies to speak to Italians in an immediately friendly and casual way.
Places like Rome don’t help.
What I mean by this is that a big chunk of Rome is built around catering to tourists. It all too often plays into the romantic ideas westerners (Americans in particular) have of Italy and exuberant inhabitants who are your immediate best friends. The style of speaking in Rome is noticeably more casual and license seems given to quick familiarity.
We kept an apartment in Rome for over a year and I was able to witness this firsthand. Many Italian proprietors play the Italian part for tourists while rolling their eyes behind their backs. But I guess it’s good for business, so who am I to criticize?
English speakers aren’t habituated to an informal “you” and a formal “you.”
It just doesn’t exist for us. We use “you” for our best buds and “you” and for addressing a stranger. When speaking Italian, there is “tu” (second-person familiar) for family and good friends, and “Lei” (third-person formal) for strangers and elders. (“Lei” can be confusing because it also can mean “she.” This is distinguished in writing by capitalizing the L, even when used mid-sentence.)
Despite the affectionate and buoyant nature of many Italians, they’re taught from an early age the importance of respect. They are cautioned by their parents against getting too close to people too quickly. Trust and familiarity must be earned. And when you earn that trust by building up to familiarity, your Italian experience will be much richer.
When speaking with strangers, default to the “Lei” (third person formal).
This structure can be found in French and Spanish as well and isn’t some strange convention put there without good reason. This is an integral part of romance languages and their associated cultures. I highly advise not skipping past learning when and how to be formal and and when and how to be familiar.
“Ciao!” just might be the biggest offender.
I can say this because I used ciao like water during my first years living in Italy. “Ciao!” can mean both “Hi!” and “Bye!”, it’s quick and easy, right? But, do you want to be told (like I was), well after the fact, that over-familiar salutations can be considered “maleducato” (rude/uneducated). Ouch!
Also, you will want to avoid using second-person-familiar verb tenses with strangers, elders, and officials. No, it won’t end the world, but you may unintentionally end up offending someone and making them be wary of you. You don’t want that when you’re working to integrate yourself into the culture (and work through the bureaucracy).
So, what DO you say if you’re uncertain?
I encourage you to check out a previous post to bone up on the Italian art of salutations and goodbyes. The never-fail greeting is “Salve, buongiorno.” (“Hello, good day.”) Or ,“Salve, buonasera.” (Hello, good evening.)
For saying, “Goodbye,” try “Buona giornata” and add “Arrivederci.” (Have a nice day. Goodbye.)
Wait for the other person to invite you to use “tu.”
This can happen in a couple of ways. The first is when the other person begins using “Ciao!” with you or by using the familiar (tu) verb tense. That’s your signal, your invitation to do likewise. The second way is when the other person basically says one of the following:
“Possiamo darci del tu, se vuoi.” (We can give each other (ourselves) the tu (you inf.) if you want.)
“Dammi pure del tu.” (Go ahead and give me the tu.)
Still, there will be Italians who don’t set a proper example.
Don’t follow them. As I said earlier, there are places like Rome where Italians speak with greater familiarity to strangers. They’re giving you the permission to use ciao and the familiar verb tense. So, go ahead and respond in kind if you want. BUT I don’t recommend copying them when you meet strangers, and don’t make it your standard practice when speaking Italian. For instance, the speaking style in Milan is more proper, and over-familiarity might not go over so well.
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Love these tips. just shared it with my family.
Always brightens my day to hear from you, John. I miss you tons!
While it is of course true that similar formal and informal verb forms exist in all other Romance languages, it should be pointed out that in Spain at least “tú” is now used in Spanish in almost all cases (I’d only use “usted” with officials or very formal-seeming older people). My impression is very much that the use of the “Lei” form is also declining among the young in other Latin countries. Better safe than sorry though, as you say 🙂
Thanks for pointing this out. I find it endlessly fascinating how languages share similarities yet evolve at different paces. Spanish is changing more rapidly, it seems! Formal, respectful conventions are still held and practiced here in Italy, particularly in the north. France, too. I’ve recently been studying French with a private tutor who has been stressing the importance of using the formal you conventions with strangers.
All very good advice, Jed. And thank you for letting us know about Simone Bugini’s language lessons. I had my first with Simone the other day and came away feeling I was in the right place (Zoom) with the right person to guide me to more proficiency with the Italian language. One reason is that Simone not only provides instruction on the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of the language, but puts it into cultural perspective. You have touched on the question of over familiarity – but there is much more to learn than that, although THAT, yes!
Excellent advice, Jed! My Austrian/German heritage taught me the proper greetings for “strangers,” which came in handy during my first visit to the old country in 1970. However, I sometimes slipped and said “ciao,” instead of the more formal greeting variations throughout the day, usually when a gaggle of locals were repeatedly saying it when arriving/leaving an establishment.
Have often wondered if eyes were rolling once out the door. However, the extremely welcoming actions of most of my Airbnb hosts can only be interpreted as sincere. My hostess in Modena invited me into her home to converse for over 1.5 hours…luckily her son was there as translator, but they delighted in my pathetic attempt at Italian. The next day they insisted I join them for lunch; I insisted on treating them for dolce, but she sabotaged me by paying for that, too. The following day, she invited me to visit her daughter and family. Absolutely blew me away. My hostess in Milano has also become a friend and pen pal. Admittedly, I doubt I ever addressed any of them using “Lei.” Regardless, thank you for the simple, yet important, reminder!
Buona sera, from San Francisco!
Hi Eric. Your experiences demonstrate the incredible Italian generosity when you approach people with an honest and open heart. Italians can “read” this quite well!
This is important information, thanks Jed, and buona giornata is such a lovely expression!
Grazie, Elizabeth. We look forward to hopefully seeing you soon!