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For foreigners who wish to juggle a bit of basic vocabulary... and for Italians who need a reminder of basic etiquette.
A consensus among foreigners is that Italian is a wonderful language; it’s so elegant, melodious, theatrical in gestures and intonations. But it is also a very mistreated language, prone to haste, simplification and informality that almost come off as impoliteness. It might seem surreal, but there are some nuances in the language which may interest foreigners – and that many Italians don’t even know. That’s why this Italian guide for dummies is written for both.
In the past, as a form of respect towards elders and superiors or even strangers, by custom, the formal expression “Lei” (Mr., Miss., Mrs., Sir or Madam) was always used, even after years of working side by side.
Today, it takes five minutes to turn everyone into a friend, forgetting the person’s role or position, and the formal expression only survives as a synonymous of luxury, used almost only in hotels and restaurants where there is a strict customer service code.
Using the informal way “Tu” is easier for a foreigner who would otherwise get confused.
Everybody says “Ciao” nowadays, whether they are going to a shop or a friend’s house. “Ciao” is a very informal greeting that’s not very tasteful towards strangers, unless they are much younger. Try to say “Buongiorno” (Good Morning) in the morning and “Buonasera” (Good Evening) in the afternoon. “Salve” is not appreciated by the Bon-Ton. The reason comes from the Latin “vale atque salve”, used to bid farewell to the deceased, but history aside, it is not included in the etiquette. Salve is not refined.
It is nice to ask how somebody is doing; it is a gentle way to show interest, but not a request of their medical history or life problems. If you are not at your best, just cut it short and don’t mention all your issues. There’s no need to talk about personal, family, work, medical related problems. On the other hand, don’t comment too much about your excellent social life and mundane evenings. To be polite, just say you are good, period.
Always use Signora to address a woman, regardless of her age or family status. In the past, Signore were married, Signorine were still too young or hopelessly spinsters. Today, it sounds derogatory, unless the Signorina is less than 13 years old.