Hello, students from all over the world!
Today I feel like telling the amusing story of a native English-speaking tourist who after a day in Italy, questions his knowledge of pronouns in the Italian language. Johnny lands at Rome airport at 7 a.m. So what better way to start the day in Italy than with a good cappuccino? He heads to the bar and as he waits his turn he hears the barmaid say "tocca a Lei” which literally translated to "it's her turn," but he does not respond until the barmaid gestures for him to come closer, so Johnny, thinking he misheard, drinks the steaming cappuccino use and heads to the bank to change his money into euros and finally begin his vacation. As he stands in line he hears the banker asks an older gentleman, "signore, Lei è sicuro di avere un conto in questa banca?" which literally translates to "Sir, She is sure she has an account at this bank?", Johnny is a bit dazed by these two happenings is he begins to question his knowledge, however, he is not discouraged, after all, it has been only 45 minutes since he landed in Italy, so he heads to the hotel and during the check-in, the receptionist asks our tourist friend “signore, Lei preferisce ricevere la colazione in camera o vuole farla in sala?” literally translated "sir, would She prefers to receive breakfast in her room or would she likes to have it in the hall?".
At this point Johnny can no longer understand why everyone is talking to him in the third person, but more importantly, doubting that he did not notice that he looked particularly feminine that day, he runs off to the room to be alone.
The moral of the story is that if you are in Italy and you hear a person talking to a woman but also to a man talking to her or him and about him or her in the feminine and in the third person, rest assured, it is not you who has confused feminine and masculine pronouns or verbal persons so far, and think about it he is not even mistaking that person you are listening to so attentively, simply in Italian there are two ways to address someone: the formal way and the informal way also referred to as the "forma di cortesia" The former is usually used with friends, relatives, co-workers, classmates, acquaintances, peers, etc., etc. The form of politeness, or forma di cortesia, is used with people one does not know, e.g., in a business where one does not personally know the interlocutor, in health care (with doctors, nurses, and all other figures), with people older than one's age, e.g., with a gentleman one meets on the street, or in situations where one is subordinate to the person with whom one is having a conversation, e.g., the student when talking to the teacher. Although these forms also exist in other languages, especially in the United States, relationships tend to be much more informal.
In Italy nowadays many people, especially among the younger generation, tend to use the familiar form with everyone but this is still seen as bad manners. The distinction of these forms has many cultural, social, and even political implications.
In southern Italy, the place I come from, the pronoun "Voi" is still widely used rather than "Lei” but the form considered most appropriate is the second one just mentioned. What I advise my students, however, is to always start a conversation with the form with which they feel most comfortable, to avoid not starting a conversation because they are not sure how to use one form rather than the other, perhaps premising that you don't want to be disrespectful, avoiding misunderstandings, if that makes you feel more comfortable... in short, the important thing is to talk!
If you decide to use the formal way, almost certainly the interlocutor will soon offer to switch to the familiar form to facilitate the naturalness of the conversation itself.
Here are the expressions that are used to ask to set up the conversation in one way rather than another: "diamoci del tu” is used to ask one's interlocutor to speak using the familiar form (with the pronoun you), this is usually said by the person who holds the "decision-making power" in that particular situation (such as the doctor, the teacher or the elderly person of the previous examples) if, on the contrary, you want to establish a formal relationship with someone, who seems to want to cross boundaries that you just can't cross, we can say: "Mi dia del Lei" i.e., speak to me in the form of courtesy, and this is a request (almost imperative) that can be made by any party to the conversation because anyone can request to receive respect, such a request will surely create a physical and mental distance between the two interlocutors, so that a formal, non-interpersonal relationship is re-established, respecting each other's boundaries.
So dear students, what to say? Did you enjoy the anecdote? Were you already familiar with this formal way? What did you think about it? I hope I have kept you company and intrigued you so that you can continue on your journey through learning the Italian language. Enjoy your continuation!