Have you ever entered an Italian café and were welcomed with a warm ciao? Around the world, people use this Italian expression as a posh-sounding parting word — so what’s happening here? The waiter looks happy to see you, so why did they say “bye”? Do they really expect you to go already? Well, you may have already figured out the issue: Ciao is used to say both goodbye and hello in Italian!
It’s certainly fascinating to see how much confusion surrounds one of the most internationally well-known Italian words (well, after pizza that is). And how many of you knew that this word’s original meaning has something to do with slavery? Seriously: Ciao evolved from the Venetian word s’ciavo (Italian: schiavo) meaning “slave.”
So, besides ciao, how else would a native speaker say hello in Italian?
Say Hello In Italian
It might seem that the safest way to say hello in Italian is to use the already common ciao, but this is not necessarily true. If you’re in a formal situation with people you don’t know or you find yourself in a more reserved environment (say, the doctor’s office), you should instead use buongiorno (good day) or buonasera (good evening), depending on the time of the day.
If you’re in doubt about how to greet someone, here’s a tip: just use salve, which, like “hello” in English, works well in both formal and informal settings. It sounds more relaxed than the formal buongiorno, but still carries a degree of politeness that the familiar ciao doesn’t. When meeting your friend’s grandfather for the first time, for example, you’d want to go with salve, perhaps even buongiorno. And you’re only allowed to switch to ciao once you know him better!
Farewells With Flair
So, you’ve now mastered how to say hello in Italian. When it comes to saying goodbye, you have two possibilities. One option is to use — you guessed it — ciao for more laid-back situations. Arrivederci, or the wish to see the other person again, is a more formal alternative. You can even slowly move from a polite buongiorno when arriving to a friendly ciao when leaving! It all depends on how the conversation evolves.
If you think your conversation partner deserves it, you could also use buona giornata or buona serata to wish them a nice rest of their day or evening. But never say either upon arrival — Italians will unmask you as a non-native speaker!
One last tip: If you feel lazy and a bit more self-confident when speaking, you can always surprise Italians by using ‘ngiorno or ‘sera (short for buongiorno and buonasera, respectively). Just remember, laziness is not always a sign of respect, so you better know in advance if you’ll receive a pleased smile or an offended glance!
Of course, these subtleties will come to you naturally the more comfortable you feel conversing in Italian. Best of luck, and ciao for now!