Lei formale: Explained
In English, we can use the same personal pronoun, “you”, for addressing someone both formally and informally. It is not the same in Italian: we use the pronoun tu for informal interactions, while we prefer to use the lei formale (formal you) to address someone more formally.
Wait a second, though… Isn’t lei the pronoun for the third person feminine?! It is, indeed. However, lei is also used as a formal version of the second person tu (both for addressing men and women!).
- Informal: Alberto, (tu) sei davvero molto gentile!
Alberto, you are so very kind!
- Formal: Signor Cucchi, (lei) è davvero molto gentile!
Mr. Cucchi, you are so very kind!
Lei formale: When to use
Now that you know what pronoun to use when addressing someone formally, let’s have a look at the situations in which it is appropriate. We use the lei formale:
- To address people we do not know, especially if they are older than us.
- In formal settings at work (an interview, a meeting with new clients, etc.)
- To talk to a person representing an authority or specific social position (police officers, professors, doctors, etc.)
Note that it is always the older person, or the one in the highest position of authority, the only one who can suggest switching to more informal communication. In this case, they will say something along the lines of: diamoci del tu (let’s address each other using tu).
Lei formale: Rules
Now that you know in which situation to use lei, let’s see how to actually use it correctly!
As we have already mentioned, lei also means “she”, so here’s the good news: the conjugation of lei formale is exactly the same as lei in the third person singular (lei fa, lei pensa, lei mangia, etc.). And remember, even if it can be confusing at first, we use lei formale to address both women and men!
It is also essential to note that all pronouns that refer back to lei formale must also be in the feminine, even if we are talking to a man:
- Signor Belli, parli più forte per favore. Non la sento!
Mr Belli, speak more loudly please, I can’t hear you!
- Buongiorno signore, come posso aiutarla?
Good morning sir, how can I help you?
Yet, remember that, when addressing a man, all adjectives and past participles maintain their masculine form, even if the pronoun is lei:
- Signor Cucchi, (lei) è stato davvero coraggioso!
Mr. Cucchi, you were so brave!
Lei formale: More info
Here are some more interesting points about the lei formale:
In very formal written communications, lei and all pronouns that refer back to it might be capitalized:
- Gentile Signora Bianchi, La informiamo che…
Dear Mrs Bianchi, we inform you that…
- Signor Bianchi, Le chiediamo cortesemente di…
Mr Bianchi, we kindly ask you to…
To address someone with lei or with tu is referred to in Italian as dare del lei / tu a qualcuno.
- Dammi del tu.
Address me with tu.
- Non darmi del lei, per favore. Non sono così vecchio!
Don’t address me with lei, please. I am not that old!