It's a beautiful evening, you are on holiday in Rome, and you find on the street an invitation to a theatres premiere at the 'Sistina', one of the most exclusive theatre in Rome! You get dressed, wear your best perfume and you are ready to go. Almost. What are you going to say? Will you just get there shouting 'ciao'? The location requires something more formal.
Learning a language is more than just grammar, and it often requires us to adjust ourselves to cultural specific behaviours, we have to learn not just how to read words but also situations! As an Italian, I'm willing to admit that we are sometimes weird and we like to swing between excesses. An example of this can be found in the use of formal and informal language. In a previous article, we discussed how the use of the imperative is strongly related to a cultural aspect of the language and how Italians tend towards directness and informality in familiar contexts. But how should we decide when to be formal, and how does it work?
Important disclaimer: being formal is a skill that gets refined over time since it represents the sum of language and social skills. To be able to be formal requires a huge deal of knowledge and full proficiency in the target language. Remember that even native Italian speakers may struggle to express themselves correctly in a formal environment!
What does it mean to be formal? Generally speaking, when we use our own language we constantly make decisions on the terms we should use based on the environment and the people surrounding us. Our behaviour and our vocabulary will reflect the choices we make. In languages, these choices, made of vocabulary banks, set phrases, and even gestures are related to the concept of registers.
Imagine a typical day, you get up and while making breakfast you talk to your dog. You'll most likely be friendly and direct, and you probably wouldn't talk to him using a sentence such as 'sir, notwithstanding you express a certain degree of hunger the food currently available wouldn't fit your nutritional needs'. In a similar, way you wouldn't refer to your boss saying: 'you're such a good boy! Who did great today in the meeting? You did! Good, well done BOB!' but you would use a more neutral and standard register.
This may all seem silly and absurd to you but a poor word choice may create embarrassing situations. Once, I met a young boy from Poland, he picked up English incredibly fast by talking with his co-workers in a building site. One day he was on a crowded bus and an old woman was standing looking for a sit. With the best intentions on his mind, he looked at her and gently said: 'Park your ass here'. He genuinely wanted to do the right thing but it came out wrong!
Being formal means to pick the right words and expressions based on a context that requires a good level of politeness and respect to your interlocutor. Each language has a different set of well-established rules to do so. When to be formal in Italy In Italy, you are expected to be formal in many contexts related to the workplace, learning institutions, public institutions, and other situations. At the core of formality is the relationship with the person you are talking to.
If you meet someone for the first time in a working environment (a client, a new manager, or anyone with a higher role than you) you should show a certain degree of formality. Following this lead, when you are a client in a shop, a restaurant, or a company, you will be the object of this formal way of speaking, as a sign of respect from those who are offering you a service. In learning institutions (public schools, universities, or private schools) formality is also a big deal. While it's ok to refer to your peers informally and directly, the hierarchical structure between students and tutors (any teaching or clerical role) is really well-defined. If you are a student in Italy, you are expected to refer to all the teaching staff with their formal title and using their surname. This rigid division becomes even more clear in formal writing where you are expected to address the recipient with their titles, surname, and a series of infinite courtesy forms. With public institutions (offices, police, or any employee in the public sector) there is a general sense of formality that is generally mutual. You are expected to be addressed formally by people in the public sector and to address them in the same way. Lastly, with other situations we can indicate undefined situations such as meeting people for the first time in a formal environment, or when a clear age gap is present. Generally, if you are talking to someone older than you outside your family it is good practice to address them formally.
How to be formal in Italy There are several levels of formality and they should be perceived more as bands of a spectrum rather than parts of a fixed set of rules. Probably, the main element used to express formality is the use of the 'Lei'. While 'lei' is a regular subject pronoun referred to the 3rd person feminine subject, the 'Lei' (capitalised) is a pronoun used to address formally someone (regardless of their gender). The use of 'Lei', generates consequences on the use of the verb that would turn to the third person singular. For instance, if I want to offer some water to a guest of mine i wouldn't say : 'vuoi (tu) dell'aqua?' but ' vuole (Lei) dell'acqua?' Another important aspect regards the use of the conditional tense (condizionale). Using a tense that expresses distance from reality allows us to sound less direct and therefore more formal. A great way to see an example of formal speech, is with an expression often presented to students at the beginning of their learning journey: 'Vorrei un caffè'. The use of the 'condizionale presente' allows to express a desire in a polite and slightly distant way, it works pretty well to express formal requests. e.g. 'Vorrei sapere quanto costa...' or 'potrei avere un bicchiere d'acqua'.
The last part to consider is the use of set phrases, some of them fairly common such as 'per favore' and 'grazie', and less common as 'per cortesia', 'mi scusi', 'La ringrazio', 'cordiali saluti', etc.
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