As a kid growing up in a Hungarian family, I learned that saluting people with Ciao! while waving my hand was a friendly way to say goodbye. I never questioned it or thought about it, as saluting people was one of the first things my parents taught me, as part of their ‘be polite’ training.
Then I moved to Italy, and I learned that ciao is not one word, but many.
Where Ciao comes from
The word ciao comes from the Venetian dialect. Originally S-ciavo, it was later abbreviated to s-ciao and then ciao, means ‘slave’ and was used by servants to address their masters in 1700s Venice. In the Venetian dialect, the phrase Sciavo Tuo means ‘your slave’, and it was equivalent to ‘I am at your service’.
It is curious to note how ciao evolved from a respectful greeting that highlighted the social differences between two people to become an informal, friendly greeting.
But here’s the thing – it’s not always ok to use it.
When we think of Italians, we think of them as being friendly, smiley, welcoming. We hear them say ciao so often that it’s become a cliche and we now believe it’s the proper way to salute people in Italy. But Italian is a language that has a formal and informal version, and it’s not always appropriate to start with the informal.
So before throwing ciaos right and left, pause. The rule is: if you know the person well, you can greet them with a ciao. If you don’t know them, use a more formal greeting.
Just to complicate things, the formal greeting will vary, depending on the time of day.
The four polite Italian greetings
To help you navigate this, here’s a list of four polite and formal ways of greeting in Italian:
Buongiorno: It means ‘good day’ and is used anytime before the late afternoon or evening. It works both as a hello and goodbye.
Buonasera: It means ‘good evening’ and you can use it all afternoon and evening. It also works both as a hello and goodbye.
Salve: The easiest and shortest form of greeting someone you don’t know is simply saying Salve. You can greet someone with salve any time of the day.
Arriverderci: Another well-known greeting word that is only for when saying goodbye. It means ‘to see you again’.
Italians don’t expect foreigners to know these differences, but if you want to offer a polite greeting to a shop owner, a cashier, a waiter, or anyone you pass in the street, you’ll want to use one of the four formal greetings.
Oh and by the way, if you listen to Italians on the phone and hear them repeat Ciao at least ten times before they hang up, that’s normal too, and here’s why: