How to Use the Formal and Informal 'You' in Italian

How to Choose Between 'Tu' and 'Lei'

Young woman talking to bartender in Italy
Young woman talking to bartender in Italy. Bob Barkany

While in English we might differ in word choice during informal and formal situations, we don’t change the forms being used. However, Romance languages have separate forms of addressing others in formal versus informal situations. As if learning a new language wasn’t difficult enough!

Learning how to use the formal and informal subject pronouns in Italian is very important. So-called social graces are key to Italian culture, and what seems like a language nuisance can determine the success of a social interaction, especially with the elderly and someone to whom you should show respect.

How Many Ways You Can Say "You"?

There are four ways of saying "you" in Italian: tu, voi, lei, and loro.

Tu (for one person) and voi (for two or more people) are the familiar/informal forms.

The Informal

While it’s taught that "tu" is used only with family members, children, and close friends, it can also be used with people around your age.

For example, if you're around 30 and go to a bar to get a cappuccino, you can use the “tu” form with the barista who seems around your age, too. It’s likely that she’ll give you the “tu” form first anyway:

  • Cosa prendi? – What are you having?
  • Che cosa voui? – What do you want?
  • Di dove sei? – Where are you from?

If you're talking to a person that is younger than you "tu" is always the best choice.

"Voi" is the plural form of the informal way of addressing people. "Voi" works for formal and informal scenarios and it's the plural "you":

  • Di dove siete? – Where are you all from?
  • Voi sapete che... – You all know that...

The Formal

In more formal situations like at a bank, the doctor's office, a work meeting, or talking to an elder, the "lei" form is always best. Use "lei" (for one person, male or female) and its plural "voi" in more formal situations to address strangers, acquaintances, older people, or people in authority:

  • Lei è di dove? – Where are you from?
  • Da dove viene lei? – Where do you come from?
  • Voi siete degli studenti. – You are students.

You’ll often see "Lei" capitalized to distinguish it from "lei" (she) when there might be room for confusion.

TIP: If you’re really not sure and you want to avoid choosing between “lei” or “tu” entirely, you can always use the generic "altrettanto" to mean "likewise" in place of "anche a lei/ anche a te." Also, unless you’re talking to royalty, you don’t have to use the formal "loro" like most textbooks teach.

It Can Be Confusing

Finally, it’s tough to figure out when you should use the "tu" or when you should use the "lei" form, so if you get it wrong at first, don’t worry. Italians know that you’re learning a new language and that it can be difficult, so do your best.

When In Doubt, Ask

You can always ask when you are unsure about how to address a person. If, for example, you feel you're close in age or there is no relationship that might call for a respectful "lei," go ahead and ask:

  • "Possiamo darci del tu?" – May we switch to the tu form?

In response, someone can say:

  • "Sì, certo." –Yes, certainly.

If you want to tell someone to use the "tu" with you, you can say:

  • "Dammi del tu." – Use the the "tu" form with me.