Good manners have been vital to Italians since at least the Renaissance. The 16th century gave us two fundamental treatises on the subject: Baldassarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier and Monsignor Della Casa’s Galateo overo de’ costumi shed light on navigating the insidious life of Italian courts. Both books can be summed up pretty well in one line: pick a side, learn some etiquette and avoid getting murdered or poisoned along the way.
Today, the risk of ending up with a knife in your back has been significantly reduced (at least physically), but learning how to behave in public remains a thorny matter, starting from courteous communication.
English speakers have dealt with the polite form of language in a straightforward way. They rely on the reassuring use of “you” for both people they are on a first-name basis with–“You, Jessica”–and for those they don’t know at all–“You, Mrs. Fletcher”–which ensures fluent conversations.
In Italy, land of the Baroque and of Byzantine dominions, the most common polite form of addressing someone is called “dare del Lei” and it’s formed by a verb in the third-person singular and the pronoun “lei” (“she”), regardless of the gender identity of the interlocutor. We’ve been using lei for some five centuries now, since the Spanish introduced their usted. But depending on the context, we can also address a singular person with “tu” (“you” in the 2nd person singular) for informal conversations; the formal “voi” (“you” in the 2nd person plural), still very popular in southern Italy, especially in Naples; and “loro” (“they” in the 3nd person plural), which is very old fashioned.
Every time we meet somebody we don’t know very well, we must quickly decide whether to use the polite form or not, then choose the respective pronouns, forcing us to fully assess the situation both grammatically and sociologically. We must evaluate if the other person is older or younger than us, how well we know them, how close we are to them, what role they play in our life. That’s a lot of work just to get some bread at the panetteria around the corner!
As a matter of fact, “dare del Lei” can lead to a series of misunderstandings:
“Buongiorno! Non la vedo da un po’. Come sta?
Buongiorno! Scusa, chi non vedi da un po’?
Ma sto parlando di Lei.
Di lei chi?
Di Lei, Lei… Lei.. TU!”
“Good Morning! I haven’t seen Her in a while. How is She?
Morning! Sorry, who haven’t you seen in a while?
I’m talking about Her.
Her, Her… Her.. YOU!”
Because of mix-ups like these, in everyday Italian, lei is being progressively substituted by tu, even in situations that would require more proper manners.
The semiotician Umberto Eco once entered a shop (he was in his 80s then) and a 16-year-old shop assistant addressed him with tu without hesitation. Eco, in response, started to talk to the youngster using all sorts of affectations, like the two of them were in an episode of Bridgerton.
Eco gave some thought to the matter in a lecture titled “Tu, Lei, la Memoria e l’Insulto” (“Tu, Lei, the Memory and the Insult”). He suspected the confusion between tu and lei came from the Italian habit of dubbing American films. So it happened that, in the Italian versions of historical movies, everybody ended up addressing each other informally, even when a subject was talking to Henry VIII. “Evidently, in the original films, the differences between ‘your Majesty’ and ‘you, my dear Jim’ were clear, but in the Italian version, everything gets confused and one uses tu to both the king and one’s wife.”
This is not the first time lei is being threatened. During the 1930s, as part of the odd set of rules imposed by Mussolini to “defend the Italian language”, the fascists abolished the use of lei in favor of tu and voi. The argument was that tu and voi had been employed in Ancient Roman times, while the “damned lei” was a “monstrosity” of Spanish derivation: “You must abolish the use of lei: feminine, ungrammatical, foreigner, born two centuries ago in time of slavery”.
Turin, first capital of the Kingdom of Italy and therefore the ancestral home of national etiquette, was among the first to adapt to the new rules. In 1939, the city put together an “anti-lei exhibition”. The facade of the building hosting the show featured the writing: “MOSTRA ANTI Lei”, in which the word “Lei” was rendered in an overly-gracious cursive, while the rest of the title was styled in the typical Fascist squared font.
The war on lei quickly got out of control. A popular women’s magazine, inconveniently titled “Lei”, had to change name to “Annabella” to dispel any doubt that the publication was attempting to challenge the purity of the language. During one of his shows, comedian Totò made a pun that didn’t go unnoticed: “And what if I meet Galileo GaliLei on the street?” he asked his public, “Shall I call him GaliVoi?”. A party official, with very little sense of humor pressed charges against the comedian.
Although I’m usually all for a less stiff style of communication, I, for one, am a firm believer in the use of lei. It’s usually safer to start a conversation with a stranger using lei; it’s better if your interlocutor thinks you’re too formal than the opposite. (It’s the same logic behind going to a party overdressed rather than underdressed: scaling down is always easier.)
And any Italian over 50 will appreciate the effort. Considering the country’s record-high average age, you’re likely to make a good impression on almost anybody you meet.