If your desire, when visiting or living in Italy, is to demonstrate proficiency speaking Italian, learning the rules of saying “I love you” must be part of your basic education.
Recently, I was reading a thriller by an established American author, and the mother of the Italian-American main character says “Ti amo” to her daughter. Yikes, in Italy a mother would never use “Ti amo” to express love to anyone but her husband, unless she is keeping a lover on the side. I chalk up this mis-step in mainstream literature to trite, and one-dimensional Hollywood presentations of Italian life and the language. In my opinion, the entertainment industry could do with a bit more vigilance with their fact checkers.
Expressing love is taken seriously here in Italy, and not tossed around quickly, nor is it over-used. More on that later, but first let’s talk about the two basic rules that will keep you out of trouble, and prevent you from embarrassing yourself.
“Ti amo” is reserved exclusively to express love between romantic partners.
This includes boyfriends and girlfriends, lovers and spouses. It is not used between friends, or between family members unless it is between the parents. One important distinction is that “Ti amo” isn’t used when couples are just beginning to date. “Ti amo” only comes with time and a maturation of romantic love. Instead young love calls for the following…
“Ti voglio bene” is used to express affection in the early stages of romantic love, and it is used between family members, and close friends.
Literally translated as “I want you well”, this still is an expression of love or affection that carries weight. You certainly wouldn’t use it with casual acquaintances.
Many Italians view Americans as tossing around love far too cavalierly, diluting the importance of love. Italians often use “Mi piace”, which means “I like it” or “It is pleasing to me”, to convey they like something or someone. They might say “Mi piace molto”, which takes it up a notch to “I like it a lot”, but Italians don’t tend to be overly effusive, because to do so can sound forced or downright fake.
When you are here in Italy listening and training your ear, as part of your journey in speaking Italian, be very, very careful when you hear any form of “amare” (to love) being used. You might misunderstand the context, and you might take it as a green light to begin using other forms of “amare”. My advice, don’t. For instance, it wouldn’t be unusual to hear an Italian woman exclaim “Lo amo!” (I love it!) when seeing a dress she adores. Other Italians will understand this as a spontaneous moment of expressing adoration for something. But, like Italian hand gestures, I recommend leaving “amare” uses, other than “Ti amo”, to the Italians. I’ve been living in Italy for 2 1/2 years now, but still I have a mountain of learning ahead of me when it comes to Italian culture and to the subtleties (and richness) of the language. It behooves me to keep with my studies, but also to practice restraint!
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