How do you handle the polite form in your language?

I’ll write this post in English so everyone can understand it even though it’s not a matter of English language.

Languages like French, German, Italian, Spanish do have more forms than just the English “you” so I’d like to know how you decide when you use the polite form and when the personal form (with personal form I mean “du”, “tu”…)

For some characters/relations it seems quite clear but for others it seems fluid or sometimes even not logical, why it is used in a certain way.

Example from a Chinese drama on Netflix (I use this as example because I think it is subbed by professionals).

The drama has a rich business man who is the head of a company, since his father passed away. He is in his late 20’s and has a personal assistant in a similar age who is some kind of right hand for him.

While the assistant always uses Mister X and polite form as address the business man uses surname + first name and personal address (du/tu…)

The thing that irritates me is that he uses the personal address (du/tu) instead of the polite form since in other movies or shows (e.g. European/US) the assistant would be addressed with polite form, maybe with first name instead of surname, but usually not with surname + first name + du/tu…

Another aspect is that even when characters seem to be friends they use their surnames as address but at the same time the personal you/du/tu…

So how do you decide for your VIKI projects which form you use?


East Asian cultures are very attentive to hierarchy and status levels. It is very usual for a boss to use the casual form for their employees. Even if they are older!
I can only talk about Korea, because I’m not really familiar with Chinese and Japanese culture, but I know that the concept is very similar in all of them.

Levels of politeness in speech - Korean

So it seems that there are many levels of politeness.

  1. Casual, first name: only with children, close friends of the same age, younger siblings and sometimes older siblings in modern families
  2. Casual, full name: from superior to inferior at work, from rich man to poor socially low person. OR if you want purposefully to be rude. A policeman to a criminal, a criminal to his captive, people having a nasty fight.
  3. Polite form (in Korean, it ends with -yo), full name with ending -ssi in Korean (it means Mr/Ms/Miss): Friends and colleagues of similar age group. Also for one’s spouse, especially women to their husband. Often the husband addresses the wife casually but she addresses him with the polite form.
  4. Polite form (in Korean, it ends with -yo), no name but only job designation: Higher rank colleagues, acquaintances, the person you’re in love with but haven’t married yet (yes, you may have kissed, you may date, but you still call her “Director Choi”).
  5. Formal form (in Korean it ends in -mnida), no name, only job designation. Higher-ups at work, strangers, older people such as your parents’ friends.
  6. Super-formal form (in Korean it ends in -mnida but there is an additional insert in the middle of the verb, and the suffix -keso after the appellation): to people you want to show lots of respect to, like grandparents, the president of the company etc. For this form, there are also some alternative verbs, for instance to eat, to sleep, it’s a wholly different verb than the usual. Long list to learn, I hated this.

And I may be forgetting some, since all these have their nuances.

What is the situation in my language?

I work with Italian with Greek.
In Greek we have two forms, casual and polite. Period.
In Italy we used to have three styles, in rising formality order.:
tu - in Roman times, there was only this. You said “tu” even to the Emperor. Nowadays it’s the most casual address.
voi - came with the French, it’s like the plural of you, and was used until after WW2, when it was dropped because Mussolini favoured it. But my grandma in the 70s also used it when she spoke to the maid and the greengrocer, and many old people in the South still use it. It’s dying, though. We use it only for historical times.
lei - came with the Spaniards (translation of "usted’). It means “she”. Strangely enough, it’s used to address a person directly, even if it’s a man. Because it implies “Your Highness” where highness is feminine. You speak to your teacher to ask him something and you say to him “She thinks that my work is good?” Yes, I know, it’s mind-bogglingly absurd. For many centuries, it was used alongside the “voi”. Voi was for ordinary respect, and “lei” was for very high-up individuals like a governor or higher.
Nowadays that “voi” was buried, “lei” is used in all instances where you don’t use “tu”. But “tu” is gaining ground, shop vendors will address casually even a mature client. I snap at them when they do so, did we know each other as children? They are young enough to be my children or even grandchildren, so what’s with the lack of respect?

What I do for dramas?

  • If it’s historical, only “tu” for peasants and commoners and “voi” for nobles.
  • If it’s modern, I try to listen to the Korean and I follow - up to where it’s logical.
    This means I do make the bosses address their subordinates casually, although it would NEVER be done in Italy. But it’s part of understanding the Korean culture, which is NOT like ours in many ways. If you start adapting it to European normalcy, then you have some behaviours which don’t make any sense for a European (the blind obedience to parents for instance, the stigma for single mothers etc etc) and then it’s a great shock for which the audience is unprepared.
    For parents, it’s a great temptation to use “voi”, but Italian people scratch their heads a little. If they know the Korean conventions they will understand why I’m using it, but many don’t agree.
    In “Memory”, the male lead’s wives (ex and present) both addressed him with the polite form, and he addressed them casually. His children addressed him with the polite form. All this I changed to casually, as if it were a European family. I felt uneasy doing this, but I felt it was inevitable.
    I have a completely arbitrary rule that when the couple kisses and starts going steady, I switch to “tu”, although the Korean doesn’t. Two people who may have had sex addressing each other formally - it would be too ridiculous for any Western viewer.
    In “Encounter”, the two lovebirds start dating mid-series, but he goes on to call her Director. They sometimes drop a line or two of banmal in very convivial moments, but they only start speaking casually to each other only on the last minutes of the last episode.

In Dutch you have:

Jij - Casual
U - Formal

The lines of when to use them is a bit blurry though and differs per Dutch speaking country.

For example “u” should be used when speaking to people who are elders (or significantly older than you). You also adress your parents this way (although in the Netherlands, it is now more common to call your parents by the casual “jij”) and strangers (again, now it is common to call them “jij” from the start).

I also used to call my bosses “u”, but they all demanded that I switch to “jij”. I guess hearing “u” makes you sound old. In Belgium and other Dutch speaking countries however, “u” is used more often than in the Netherlands.

I adhere to the customs that I grew up with for the dramas I moderate, since I tend to do Chinese dramas and Korean sageuks.

So I use “u” for everyone that is older than the character (unless they obviously have a very low social standing), parents and for people higher in social standing. And “jij” for people that are younger, the same age and for a lower social standing. I only use “jij” for parents in more modern dramas, when working for other mods that deem it more appropriate.


And it’s not only a question of “polite form”. English doesn’t have a “polite form” as such, but there other ways in which it shows respect and formality. For instance, look at this example in a Chinese period drama (it’s a romantic comedy, but still!)
I wondered if it is still unedited. But I saw all 22 episodes are translated in English and released, since many other language translations are there. And this was only episode 3.
(Titles are messed too, the crown prince at times is called “Majesty” and then “Highness” etc.)


It’s like–

Wanna drink some tea, Mr. President? :joy::joy: