Russian Language Blog

Beyond ты and вы — formality in Russian Posted by on Mar 12, 2015 in language, Russian for beginners

Image from Unsplash

Image from Unsplash

One of the first things you learn in Russian is that there are two ways of addressing a person depending on your relationship with them. Ты is reserved for friends, family, and young children. Вы is the polite form of address to strangers, older people, officials, and anyone you are interacting with in a formal setting.

If you feel like you sometimes don’t know which one to use — for example, running into a friendly stranger of your age in a cafeteria — you are not alone in this. Many native speakers run into situations when they are unsure, and end up switching back and forth, avoiding second-person pronouns, or inadvertently upsetting the other person. Ты can be a symbol of intimacy and acceptance — “you are one of us.” It can also be condescending and lacking respect.

It’s easy to put off a potential client, business partner, or a love interest by giving the impression of being too familiar or disrespectful. For example, hearing hotel staff at popular Mediterranean resorts cry out “Приве́т! Как дела́?” at elderly Russian couple is cute and embarrassing at the same time as this is not the form you would use with customers.

Basics: Verbs and Adjectives

group of friends

Image from Unsplash

Anything referring to ты needs to be in second person singular: “Что ты чита́ешь?” (What are you reading?). Forms that have gender, like adjectives or verbs in the past tense, need to agree with the grammatical gender of the person — or thing — being addressed: “Ты ви́дела мо́лнию?” (Have you seen the lightning?), “Ты тепе́рь взро́слый” (You’re a grown-up now).

Вы requires the second person plural form for present and future verbs and plural forms for past verbs:

Вы мне звони́ли? (Have you called me?)

Вы лю́бите класси́ческую му́зыку? (Do you like classical music)?

This distinction also applies to imperatives. “Open the door” will be “откро́й дверь” or “откро́йте дверь”  depending who you are talking to.

Courtesy Phrases

Most people who have studied Russian know the basic rules I described above. However, things start getting fuzzy when it comes to certain polite expressions, like “Sorry” or “Hello.” Learners whose languages tend to have a one-size-fits-all expression for these things tend to remember one variant and use it indiscriminately (say, “Извини́те” for both friends and strangers).

I will list some of the most common courtesy phrases and their formal and informal variations.

Excuse me
Bless you/Gesundheit
Будь здоро́в (m)/Будь здоро́ва (f)
Бу́дьте здоро́вы
До свида́ния!
How are you?
Как дела́?
Как у вас дела́?/Как пожива́ете? (a bit bookish)


Finally, you should keep in mind that different forms of address are appropriate depending on the level of formality. You would call someone you are on Вы terms with (“на Вы“) by their full name and patronymic, for example, Еле́на Васи́льевна. Short forms, pet forms, and nicknames are reserved for people you use ты with, like Ка́тя, То́ля, etc.

Recently, people have often switched to short forms with people they are on formal terms with (“И́ра, проходи́те“), like co-workers, but it is not universally accepted. To be on the safe side, I recommend using the name that the person introduced themselves as.

Do you ever feel awkward or unsure about formality in Russian? I know I sure do!

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Ken:

    I went to the bank once and noticed the teller’s badge said “я говорю по-русски”. I wanted to address her in Russian and was unsure whether to use the formal or not. At first I thought it was probably OK as she was younger than me but I changed horses in mid-stream so to speak and ended up saying something like “ты…говорите по-русски?”

    • Maria:

      @Ken Oh yeah, I have that happen to me when volunteering with older Russian speakers. They will switch back and forth between ты and вы multiple times when addressing me.
      I would say the setting can also decide your choice. In a public office/service location, I would probably stick with the formal to avoid talking down to the personnel. In fact, saying ты to a waiter is considered bad form and a stereotypical trait of the new rich.

  2. samonen:

    I come from a semi-one-size-fits-all culture where the formal second person plural form of address had gradually, starting in the 60s following Sweden’s example, all but vanished but it is making a comeback now – probably as a result of Finland’s being a member of the EU.

    My cousin once told me how amazingly nice and well-behaved her daughter’s Russian friend Elena was. Elena had initially addressed her as “te” (=вы) which was too much for my cousin: Finns really don’t know how to take it! It is almost embarrasing, and may even arouse suspicion as to whether any irony is included…

    As far as I know, in Ancient Rus(sia) only the ты was used, even in addressing the czar, much like the Roman caesar was always “tu” in Latin. The present Russian practice seems like a French import.

    • Maria:

      @samonen Interesting! Sounds like Peninsular Spanish, where the formal address is rarely used, or modern Hebrew, which does not have a formal address. You are right about addressing the czar — in fact, all (Russian Orthodox) prayers use the ты form, as well.