If you spend any time in Italy, and you want to begin to endear yourself to the people here, you’d better familiarize yourself with the art of Italian greetings and goodbyes.
Don’t abuse “Ciao.”
This is one the biggest missteps Americans make when they come to Italy, blithely tossing out “Ciao” everywhere when greeting an Italian or saying goodbye. Most people will acknowledge you, but you might as well have “unenlightened foreigner” stamped on your forehead. My partner, who is Italian (born and bred here in Italy,) has helped me embrace a few important guidelines for when saying hello and goodbye.
“Ciao” is a greeting or a goodbye used for people with whom you have a familiar relationship. Don’t use it with strangers. “Salve” is the polite way to address people you are meeting for the first time. I don’t usually make the switch to “Ciao” unless the other person does so first. It’s kind of like them saying “It’s okay to be a bit more casual.”
As for saying goodbye to someone you don’t know, always use “arrivederci”. I know, it’s a mouthful, and you may stumble over rolling your r’s, but practice, practice, practice.
When you are addressing someone who is older, sticking to “Salve” and “Arrivederci” is a sign of respect. I’m not a youngster, so I’ve learned not to be offended when people here continue to use formal greetings with me. I try to switch to the informal with them to let them know they don’t have to keep referring to me as “Sir” – which is the best American equivalent.
The long(er) hello and goodbye.
Building on the basic parameter above, I’ve been taught by my partner that a short “Ciao”, “Salve”, or “Arrivederci” can be a tiny bit rude, and another clear sign you’re a foreigner. You see, Italians tend to appreciate a bit more to the greetings and goodbyes. By this I mean pairing the greeting with “Buon giorno” (good day) or “Buona sera” (good evening). The fail-safe greeting therefore is “Salve. Buon giorno.”
For saying goodbye, you use a slightly different version of “Buon giorno” and “Buona sera”. You say “Buona giornata” (refers to the whole day, basically “Have a good day.”) and “Buona serata” (basically “Have a good evening.”) So practice saying “Arrivederci. Buona giornata.” Again, a mouthful, but people will appreciate it. And, be thankful when you can switch to “Ciao” as part of the overall formula.
By the way, a pretty safe rule of switching from “Buon giorno” to “Buona sera” is around mid-afternoon (around 3 p.m.). “Buon pomerrigio”, which is literally “good afternoon”, can be used as an afternoon greeting, but I find it rarely used, and a bit archaic.
When to use “Buona notte.”
People get tripped up on this one…a lot. “Buona notte” is used when you are parting, later in the evening, and you and the other person are pretty much heading to bed. Don’t use it when you are greeting someone during the evening.
Saying good-bye on the phone.
Don’t just say one “Ciao” and then hangup. Italians consider it abrupt. Don’t be surprised, when you overhear Italians on their cellphones putting together a string of “Ciao’s” before getting off the phone. I’ve overheard some goodbyes that took over a minute and include a dozen of them. It may seem strange to you, but get used to it.
Of course, you can ignore all of this advice and do as you please. However, you run the risk of supporting the view of many Americans acting “entitled”. More advice on that in another post….