Translated by Dina Merali

In today’s article called “How to address others in an academic environment”, I am going to talk about how to address people at school. In Italy, according to the age and to the school, we will be using Tu or Lei.

Read the following article to discover more about this Italian habit!

Today’s article was inspired by a conversation I had had with one of my students of kazakh origin, with whom I had discussed the usage of formality within the italian language.

During our conversation I learned that in her country of origin, formal language is used a lot more than it is in Italy. It is used directly with one’s parents and their older siblings. That being the case, I had suspected then had my suspicions confirmed that in Kazakhstan, even small children use formal language at school.

This made me think about how much things can change and vary from country to country, and how true the popular Italian proverb is: Paese che vai, usanze che trovi!Different country, different customs!

What’s happening in Italy?

I am sure you are all well aware that in Italian there are various way to address someone: tu, Lei, Voi, the last one particularly being used only in certain regions of the peninsula.

Nevertheless, if you would like to know more about allocutive pronouns or if you struggle with the usage of the formal Lei, I have already discussed it in depth previously. If however you are interested in the evolution of the usage of tu, Lei, and Voi in the Italian language, be sure to check out my post History of Tu, lei, and voi!

But returning back to the original topic of this post, and why I had decided to take on this topic that could be considered dull: to deeper understand the cultural aspects of the lives of Italians. For example how to address someone in an academic environment considering one’s age and scholastic progression. 

Kindergarten and primary

When children are very little and attend kindergartens and primary school, the school has a very relaxed and informal environment, almost familial. In fact, both teachers and children refer to each using the informal ‘you’!

Middle and High school

Gradually, children have to learn different forms of conduct, for example how to address someone depending on the situation or context. In fact, in middle school, adolescents learn to start using formal speech with their professors.

Why this change?

It is because adolescents have to understand that the roles are different now. They cannot treat their superiors as their equals; there has to be a certain distance between them. However, distance does not necessarily mean coldness, only that certain limits cannot be crossed. Teachers are neither the students’ friends nor relatives.

There is, nevertheless, a nuance to this: the student addresses the professor with Lei, the formal Italian ‘you’, and the professor addresses the student with tu, the informal Italian ‘you’.

When I used to go to middle school, I remember that a lot of my peers had difficulty adjusting to this new form of conduct in an academic setting, often foregoing the usage of ‘Lei’ in favor of ‘tu’. It was an interesting experience observing the professors’ reactions to these slip-ups. Some were irritated by this show of closeness, whereas others were not troubled by this at all, especially if students displayed a general sense of respect towards their studies.

Some students tended to use ‘Voi’, which was accepted by all without batting an eye. That’s because probably you know I come from the south of Italy where part of the population continues to prefer Voi over the more accepted Lei.


If within the middle and high school it is commonly accepted that superiors were addressed with Lei and the students with Tu, this custom changes starting university. Now both students and professors are addressed with Lei.

This does not mean that now these two groups of people are peers; it is used to show that students are now adults and will be recognized as such. This change permits students to prepare themself for their future professional, and in general, for their adult life.

I have to admit that there are institutions that maintain a rather informal atmosphere within their walls, though. I am speaking specifically of more musical and artistic institutions that are characterized by a more direct communication between its professors and its students. For this reason, it is not rare to be able to find such an academy where students are called by their names and referred directly using ‘tu’.


At the beginning of this article, I cited a famous Italian proverb, and I believe that there is no other way to articulate that message more clearly.

I am sure that if I asked any of you to tell me about how the academic system functions in your country and to tell me about the right way to address Professors and students, you’ll give me different answers depending on your country of origin.

Do you agree with me?

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