“Ciao” and The Long Goodbye

“Ciao” can flow like water at the end of a phone call.

Years ago, I was on a northbound train in Italy, sitting close to a man talking on his cell phone. I swear I heard him utter “Ciao” at least two dozen times over the span of two-to-three minutes before he actually ended the call. I thought to myself “Is this for real?” At the time, I was mostly irritated that the man with speaking so loudly. I just wanted him to end the call and shut up so I could have some peace. But, this was the beginning of my understanding and appreciation of why and how Italians differ from Americans when ending a phone call. I now lovingly call it “The Long Goodbye.”

An underlying logic exists in this prolific use of “Ciao.”

First, let’s be clear that we’re talking about phone calls between friends, and the use of “Ciao” being used with familiarity. If it were a phone conversation between strangers or people who barely know each other, “Salve” and “Arrivederci” (the formal goodbyes) would be used.

Now, let me attempt to explain the ciao logic as explained to me by more than one Italian. During a phone call between friends and/or family, “Ciao” becomes the signal that the conversation is entering its last lap and is about to wrap up. Uttering one “Ciao” and hanging up is usually considered abrupt and rude––like you’re cutting the other person short. The first “Ciao” allows the other person to add any last nuggets to the conversation. It can be followed by another “Ciao” and another, and can be interspersed with additional conversation before returning to a final series of “Ciao.”

The liberal use of “Ciao” calls to attention the cultural differences between Italian and Americans

As a general rule, most Americans are used to concise goodbyes. I often see my fellow Americans rolling their eyes and checking their watches when overhearing a phone call between Italians, or when impatiently waiting for an in-person parting to just “get one with it.” Yes, “The Long Goodbye” extends to in-person encounters.

My advice? If you move here, get used to it. Get into the flow and embrace the logic of these lengthy goodbyes. Italians are warm, passionate people and they’re not prone to cutting things short and rushing off to something else. This is also why meals are lengthy. Meals are another opportunity to commune with loved ones and new acquaintances and you rarely see Italians finishing up and offering hasty goodbyes.

In closing, I confess that this has been a real adjustment for me. I’m used to being more economic about my goodbyes. This cultural shift has been good for me. It is teaching me that ending a conversation isn’t just about my feeling “done” and my being ready to move on to something else. “The Long Goodbye” is helping me to slow down and to check in with the other person to see if they’ve said all they’ve needed to say.

How civilized and how respectful!

If you liked this post be sure to read my post with general guidelines about Italian greetings and goodbyes.

By |2019-01-19T20:52:19+02:00April 12th, 2018|Speaking Italian|13 Comments

About the Author:

I’m an American expat living in Italy!

13 Comments

  1. Kathryn April 14, 2018 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    I remember overhearing a similar conversation with all the ciaos and thinking the same thing. Thanks for the ecplanation.

  2. Amy April 12, 2018 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    Maybe my mother is Italian, and I’m not aware of it? ; ^ )
    The Italian culture never ceases to fascinate me. Thanks for highlighting even these small but wonderful features of Italian life.

    • Jed April 12, 2018 at 7:17 pm - Reply

      You made me laugh out loud, Amy. So, your mom has her own version of “The Long Goodbye?”

  3. Gatto Nero April 12, 2018 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this post, Jed. I was surprised by this phenomenon during my first long-distance call with an Italian friend and have noticed it fondly ever since. It expresses a kind of respect and tenderness toward the other. Your interpretation of “the long good-bye” seems just right.
    Thanks also for the mini-lesson on “ciao.” Many Americans assume that it’s the equivalent of “hi” and can be used indiscriminately. (I cringe when I hear Americans greet shopkeepers and other strangers with “Ciao!”) Italians are warm and generous but also have a strong sense of propriety, and “ciao” is acceptable only when greeting family and close friends (or, among the young, when greeting peers). By the same token, it’s important to use the formal pronouns and verb forms when speaking to those you don’t know or have just met. People will actually give you permission (or invite you) to use the “tu” form once you become more acquainted.
    I find these social practices quite ennobling and endearing.

    • Jed April 12, 2018 at 7:16 pm - Reply

      I’m so glad you like this post. I’m still furthering my education on respectful behavior here in Italy. There are all sorts of ways a person can get tripped up if they’re not careful. But, the great things is, Italians are pretty forgiving with these kinds of things and often gently explain/correct newbies, like me, in the course of conversation.

  4. Kevin April 12, 2018 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    Hey Jed! Very interesting! This is a great example of what one can encounter when they get outside of their culture. I will be on the look out for this during the next trip to Italy. I’m glad you shared this and your insight as well as I’m afraid I might have just looked on with the same initial irritation and never really understood the cultural and emotion reasons for it happening.

    • Jed April 12, 2018 at 7:13 pm - Reply

      Yes, Kevin, you hit the nail on the head. It IS just one of many examples of how behaviors and manners differ from culture to culture. What I love about Italians is that once they let you in, they treat you like family!

  5. Angela April 12, 2018 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Well, I learn something from you with every post. I was surprised to learn from Manu that American’s using ciao with strangers is considered rude! During our last trip to Italy, we used the word constantly! Who knew we were being so rude! Certainly not our intention, I was mortified but now know better! Thanks for helping us with the culture rather than just learning words. I’ll track down your general guidelines now. 🙂

    • Jed April 12, 2018 at 7:10 pm - Reply

      Thanks for pointing this out, Angela. When people visit Italy, they far too often use “Ciao” far too indiscriminately. People in the south are quicker to invite a person to use this mode of familiarity. Northern Italians, who are still very warm people, tend to be a bit more formal and familiarity is approached more slowly. At least, that’s my experience.

  6. Mark Hanson April 12, 2018 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    I am so happy that you explained this. I always thought it was a competition for the last word, Ciao, Ciao Ciao, Ciao, Ciao

    • Jed April 12, 2018 at 7:07 pm - Reply

      LOL! Mark, I think Americans hold the trophy for wanting to get in the last word! I can say that since I’m American.

  7. Diane Alexander April 12, 2018 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Hey Jed, Enjoyed reading about the meaning behind “Ciao” Thanks Jed!! Us Americans should take a few lessons .

    • Jed April 12, 2018 at 1:43 pm - Reply

      Always good to hear from you, Diane! Our conditioning runs so deep, doesn’t it? Slowing down to be present is a great lesson for me, and Italy delivers plenty of opportunity!

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