A friend was bemoaning the new casualness in today’s schools – no more Sigra. or Signorina when addressing La Maestra (and I’ve yet to discover a male out there – although I’m sure they exist in the same way we know white tigers roam parts of India). In part, due to the youth of today’s teaching corps, and, according to a study which found that 52% prefer using the informal ‘Tu’ rather than the ‘Lei’. Their reasoning: in part due to the immediacy of email and friendliness of social networking sites.
Just for the record, this same friend, after marrying her junior high school sweetheart, having grown up practically next door to each other – both give the Lei to the parents 30 years on. In a gesture of sheer chutzpah, clumsiness, or both – I don’t use it for either set.
For us English-speaking natives, using the familiar 'Tu' is decidedly more friendly, and we sort of avoid and abhor pulling out the 'Lei' when we find ourselves in a pinch – we absolutely cringe from its formality, although it does not hold that same weightiness for Italians. It’s simply what’s used. I suppose, if you’re from America’s South, where the term Ma’am is oft-used, addressing someone with the 'Lei' is probably not that big of a deal.
But the fun really starts when someone speaks, and you look over your shoulders to see who, in fact, they must be talking to – you automatically hear 'She' not 'You'. Even more mind-boggling for men, when they use the 'Lei' (She/Her) for You – in the single documented case of Italian gender parity.
But, my big question remains: What’s up with the Lei to signify an insult? When arguing with a fellow driver, I used to address them in the 'Tu', thinking, ‘Hah! I don’t treat them with respect’. Turns out I was totally off base. I used to shop religiously at an exclusive store in Rome. For years, the wonderful proprietor gave me the 'Tu'. Until that fateful day when my credit card did not go through. Attempts to contact the fraud office followed. Suddenly, and in front of the other customers, I was getting the 'Lei' – the verbal equivalent of the Cold Shoulder.
But my favorite is the standing joke in Italy: After the boss and his secretary enjoy a nice shag, they go back to their respective offices and right back into using the Lei. I find this practice so outlandish, that it causes my brain synopses to backfire. Although, while I could see Monica saying, Mr. President...I still can't quite conceive of him calling her Ms. Lewinsky. But, ask any boss who’s similarly sowed his oats – they will tell you something I’ve known for years – that there’s a lot of truth in humor.