How To Be Courteous And Polite In Italian

We're coving the 10 most important things to know to get by in Italian. Monday we looked at Italian greetings. Today, we'll look at what I call the common courtesies.

2. Italian courtesies

When I use the term common courtesies here, I am referring to the basic courtesy phrases we all learn as children. These are things like please, thank you, excuse me, bless you, and so on... things that your mom made you say, and she got mad when you forgot.

Scusi. : Excuse me.

Scusami. : Excuse me.

(Con) permesso. : Excuse me (as I pass).

Mi dispiace. : I'm sorry.

Per favore. : Please.

Prego. : Please.

Eccolo! : Here it is. (When giving or pointing to something.)

Grazie. : Thank you.

Grazie mille! : Thanks a lot!

Molto grazie! : Thank you very much!

Prego. : You are welcome.

Non c'è problema. : No problem.

Salute! : Cheers!

Salute! : Bless you! (after a sneeze)

Mi chiamo ... : My name is ...

È un piacere conoscerla. : It is a pleasure to meet you.


We notice here that in Italian (as in most languages, in my experience) the phrase salute is used in place of the English phrases "cheers" and "bless you". I quite prefer this, as "to your health", or "be healthy" expresses a genuine wish for recovery from a health condition... unlike the phrase "bless you", which is rooted in the superstitous belief that a sneeze was actually caused by demons trapped in the body!

We also see another common phenomena here... in place of the English phrase "you're welcome" — which takes a position of servitude or deference to the person being spoken to — Italians respond to thanks by simply saying please (please), as if to say, "surely I don't deserve your gratitude." By contrast, this takes on the outward appearance of humility while subtlely retaining a sense of self-worth.

This subtle mental difference is again evident in the phrase mi dispiace, used where English speakers say "I'm sorry". Rather than lowering their sense of self-value (as is done by the phrase "I'm sorry"), Italians say "this displeases me". It's still shows a properly regretful response, but allows the speaker to retain his or her dignity.

I could (and probably will) write an entire post about these subtle psychological differences between languages. This was definitely a great opportunity to bring attention to it. It's features like these which often tend to shape the ways people perceive those from foreign countries... such as the way Americans view Italians as confident, or the way most of the world seems to think Americans apologize too much.

These are the subtleties that not only help to make you a better speaker in another language, but which also reveal the ways that speaking another language makes you more aware of your own!

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  • As compelling as I find the issue of these psychological differences, I must say that I'm sceptical, and think that they are negligible when it comes to phatic expressions like 'please' or 'thank you'. For instance, even though I might exclaim 'Oh my God' in shock or awe, I never have the sense of evoking a higher being, and this same disassociation is reflected by the people who run the words together 'Omigod!'Now, whether the *grammar* and overall *lexicon* of a language exerts subtle influences on its speakers is another question, for me.

  • I am of the opinion that there is a psychological burden on the words you choose. There have been several studies regarding this, and they all seem to indicate that the simple fact saying certain words does have an effect on thoughts, emotions, etc.If there's argument over whether or not most English speakers are aware of the negative connotation of saying "I'm sorry", just tell someone "you are sorry" and see if they get offended. :)

  • But the problem with your last suggestion is that "I'm sorry" is just the phatic expression that we've come to expect, so to break from the norm and say "you're sorry" breaks the cultural expectation and thus jars the attention of the person you're talking to. To be honest, I think most people would not even realize today that "sorry" means "pathetic" or "down-trodden." The idea, also, that people aren't actually considering the base meaning of "sorry" in "I'm sorry" is supported in that people also just say "sorry" instead of the whole phrase. To insert "you are" isn't a problem of calling the person pathetic, it's a problem with breaking a social expectation.Also, Benjameno made a great point with "oh my god." I think, if anything, the expressions that you have to look at to reflect the social norms are the ones that are more recent or more slang-y. i.e. "Oh my god!" and "I'm sorry" are from a time when we were (more of) a god fearing culture with a high stress on social status. We don't think of "goodbye!" as it's original constituents, "(May) god (be) by ye." "God by ye" The fact that it ran together so much and it's hardly recognizeable, and ESPECIALLY that the short "o" in "god" became a long u sound as in "good" is one of the bigger signs that we eventually detatch the original intention of phatic expressions such as "goodbye." (even more when it just becomes "bye")"I'm sorry" "You're welcome" "God bless you" stop carrying any sign of their original intent and pick up just a sign of social niceties, and, just to reaffirm what I said, the most proof in that is that we lose stress on the individual words of the statement, as in "g'-bless-y'" or just "bless-yah."And as I started saying above, the more recent statements are the greater indicator of cultural organization, such as "I feel you, man" for "Aw, I'm sorry." or "Peace!" instead of "bye!" Fun to think about though, eh?Sorry if my statement went on too long. (and by "sorry" in this context I am not calling myself down-trodden or sad, I mean "I apologize for") :P

  • Ah, now you've touched onto a different, but related, topic -- that of how much absolutely meaningless language Americans use. And this is perfectly exemplified in your final paragraph...Not only are you not sorry for it, but you say if in such a way as to only begrudgingly acknowledge the fact! Yes, I understand there was a humorous intent, but the interesting thing is how you squeezed out two big sentences to express a thought that was so clearly and precisely stated in the final phrase "I apologize for".There are a lot of languages I know nothing about, but so far, based on those with which I have experience, I can recognize this as a predominantly English-speaking phenomenon. In all other languages (that I know) people would simply and clearly say "I apologize for writing so much." But... then... ironically, they wouldn't have written so much. :)

  • Regionality also has a bit to do with it. Perhaps in the U.S. saying "God bless you" does not necessarily carry any kind of religious connotation, but in Australia if anyone said that to you you would totally assume they were Christian and were literally calling upon their higher being to give you divine protection.

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