Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Lei...Tu? Why can't we just say YOU?



My Italian is improving by the day but that does not mean I have reached adult level yet. I saw Indiana Jones at the movies the other week and managed to understand most of it (ok, so what if it was not difficult?) so I think that I am perhaps on level with an 8 year old at the moment. Ok, perhaps a slow 7 year old is more like it. (How long do I have to wait to speak like a 29 year old??? Che palle!)

One thing my slow 7 year old Italian mind cannot cope with is Lei - the polite version of tu or you. I know that lei is like speaking in the 3rd person but for some reason my mind cannot hold a conversation with someone using lei. I often start out ok 'lei come sta?' but then when the conversation gets going I forget about my lei altogether and switch into tu without having been invited to do so.

Yes. In Italy there is a fine line between lei and tu. One is meant to use the polite form of lei for older people, people higher then you in a work place or people whom you have never met before. Tu is for people younger then you, and family and friends who you are friendly with. My problem is that I am never, ever sure when to use which.

If I meet a hotel director and he is half my age (impossible but you get my point) then I guess I am meant to use lei as he is higher then me, but then he is younger then me at the same time. When I call my hotels and speak to the reservations department I think we are on the same level so I think I should use tu...but then I don't want to cause offence. If I am meeting bel ragazzo's family or friends then I guess I should use lei but I am his fidanzata so can I not steal his right to use the word tu?

My solution: Don't use anything at all.

I am furba so normally I try to speak without using the word YOU or if that fails I wait for them to say something indicating our 'friendliness.' No more come stai or come sta for me - I greet people by saying 'tutto ok?' If I need something, like a pen, I say 'c'e una penna?' Furba...Sly hey?! I don't ask if you have a pen, I say is there a pen! It's great...if I remember my slyness that is.

Of course I know that it does not really matter as I am a foreigner and my right as a foreigner is to be able to say TU to everyone and they will not take offence as I (poor me) can not speak the language (gosh, I still can't use anything but the most simple form of past tense! Do NOT get me started on Italian grammer.) Bel ragazzo kindly reminds me that people know I am a foreigner and cannot speak very good Italian. He says once I speak Italian near perfectly then people will not be so forgiving with the misuse of lei

...but hey I'm only a slow 7 year old at the moment in Italy so I have a long, long way to go.

5 comments:

Romerican said...

Don't feel bad about the tu/lei confusion, I've been here 10+ years and still do it!!! I also resorted to the sneaky "Come va?" speak without using tu/lei tactic, specially in situations when I can't decide if I need to be formal or not! =)

Leanne said...

Hi Romerican,
Come va? I like it! I feel better knowing that you after 10 years still find it a little confusing when or when not to use the LEI.

red said...

I messed up with the major's parents and the toi/ vous thing in French- automstically using toi. Until I realised his siter's husband referred to them individually as 'vous.' In French it's a little easier to be furba though because 'vous' is not only the polite form of you but also the plural, so now I use 'vous' but always speak to his mother and father at the same time- as a plural.

Kataroma said...

aargh! And I hate using titles particularly at work. I'm a lawyer so I introduce myself on work phonecalls when I don't know the person as Avvocato ___ but as an Australian I feel so stupid doing it. But when I use my first name, as I prefer to do, people think I'm the secretary (not that there's anything wrong with that of course...)

And I often have no idea what someone's title is and have to ask.

As far as Lei is concerned - I only use it for people I don't know and people who are significantly older than me (more than 15-20 years).

Leanne said...

Hi Red,
So you are furba in french! Well done..we need to be a little sly sometimes with a language that is not our mother tongue.
I too used you informal TU the first time with bel ragazzo's parents and actually I called his mum Maria when the brothers finace calls her still after 18 years of being together Signora Maria... She was shocked when I just came out with the first name!


Hi Kataroma,
It is odd using titles. People always say 'Salve (insert job title)' rather then Hello Mr or Mrs Surname... A lot less personal I think. They are all about being 'correct' here in Italy, everyone is so scared of the brutta figura!