Have you ever entered an Italian café and were welcomed with a warm ciao? Around the world, people use this Italian word as a posh parting, so what’s happening here? They look happy to see you — so why did they say “bye”? Do they really expect you to go already? You may have already figured out the issue: Nobody actually wants you to leave — they use ciao for saying hello in Italian as well as goodbye. As for whether or not Italians are aware that many countries use this word exclusively for goodbyes — let’s just say it’s still a mystery.
It’s definitely curious to see how much confusion there is around one of the most well-known Italian words (well, the most widely-known after pizza). And how many of you knew that its original meaning has something to do with slavery? Seriously: ciao is an evolution from the Venetian word s’ciavo (Italian: schiavo) meaning “slave.” It was used to greet people while showing them graciousness, expressing something to the effect of, “I’m your slave.”
Saying Hello In Italian Like A Native
So how do you say hello in Italian like a native? It would seem that the safest way to greet someone in Italian would be with the already-international ciao, but this is not necessarily true. If you’re in a formal situation, such as with individuals you don’t know or are in a generally more reserved environment, like at work or the doctor’s office, you should instead use buongiorno or buonasera (literally “good day” and “good evening”), according to the time of the day.
If you’re in doubt about what type of greeting to use, here’s a trick: just use salve which, like “hello” in English, works well in formal as well as informal situations. It sounds more relaxed than the formal buongiorno, but still carries a degree of politeness that the familiar ciao doesn’t. For example, if you meet your friend’s grandfather for the first time, it’d be better to say salve, perhaps even buongiorno, and you’re only allowed to switch to ciao when you know him better.
Farewells With Flair
Now when it comes to saying goodbye, you have two options: One possibility is to use — guess what — ciao in informal situations, while the other, more formal option is arrivederci, which is a wish to see each other again. You can even slowly move from a formal 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 wish the person a nice rest of their day or evening by saying buona giornata or buona serata. But never use it when arriving — Italians will unmask you as a non-native!
One last tip: If you feel lazy and a bit more self-confident when speaking, you can always surprise Italians using the short forms ‘ngiorno or ‘sera, short for buongiorno and buonasera respectively. Just remember, laziness is not a sign of respect, so you’d better know in advance if the reaction will be a pleased smile or an offended glance! Of course, all of these subtleties will come to you naturally the more comfortable you feel conversing in Italian.
Best of luck, and ciao for now!