While you may not be learning much Italian before your Italy trip, I always think it’s nice to get a few words of politeness under your belt – for any language – before you arrive in a new place. Politeness will get you oh, so far, even when you’re stumbling through the rest of the language.
In Italian, beginners notice quickly that there are a few polite words that have multiple meanings, or situations in which you don’t use the word you think you might use. In this article, then, I’m going to cover four polite words that will help you navigate a multitude of experiences in Italy.
The verb “scusare” means to excuse – which you probably can guess just by the way it sounds – but Italians have a couple specific uses for this word, and they do not include trying to find your way through a crowd.
Specifically, “scusi” is the imperative form of the verb, which – in layman’s terms – means it’s what you’d say to a stranger if you wanted to get directions somewhere, ask a shopkeeper what something costs, or actually apologize for something. Those examples in Italian are:
While it’s pretty typical for English speakers to say, “Sorry,” as they’re trying to push through a crowd, “scusi” isn’t the word Italians use when they need someone to make room or get out of the way. That word is “permesso,” which comes from the verb “permettere” – to permit or allow. So, when you’re on a crowded bus and you need to get past the person at the door when it’s your stop, you’re essentially saying, “Permit me to get by,” when you say, “Permesso.”
Beginning Italian students will learn quickly how to say thank you – grazie – often followed by how to say you’re welcome – prego. There are a couple other extremely common uses for prego, however, will seem out of context if you think it only means “you’re welcome.”
“Prego” is used in the same way an English speaker might say, “After you,” or even, “Please,” when holding open a door. It’s also used by the staff at restaurants, bars, and gelato shops to indicate, “Please, tell me what you’d like.” In other words, when the waiter comes to your table and says, “Prego,” he is not saying, “You’re welcome” before you’ve even ordered.
“Posso” is from the verb “potere,” which means to be able to, and I find it to be one of the most useful polite words in my Italian arsenal. It’s a simple word that can ingratiate you to just about anyone. It means, “May I?” and if you are good with gestures or already indicating whatever it is you want to do, then all you need is that one little word and you’ve gotten your meaning across.
For example, maybe you’re in a small church and you don’t see any signs forbidding photography, but you want to be sure you’re not offending anyone. So you find someone working there, hold up your camera, and say, “Posso?” Or perhaps you’re shopping at an outdoor market for some fresh fruit, and you’re not sure if this is one of those markets at which you shouldn’t touch the produce. You can point to the apples, gesture as if you’re going to pick one up, and say, “Posso?” to the vendor. It’s respectful to ask permission, even if you only know a few words of Italian.