I’m out of town taking care of a post-surgery mother, so I decided to republish an older piece this week. Here’s a blast from the past, in case you missed it when it was published originally in 2014! I’ll be back to new articles next week when I get home.
We’re led to believe that we’ve got a handle on the Italian language before we even get off the plane in Rome. I’m guilty of this – I used to tell my Italian students they would never starve, having ordered many a meal at an Italian restaurant before. But the truth is that although some Italian words won’t sound so foreign to your ear, there are cultural nuances in the language that you can’t know unless you know the culture.
Take, for instance, the word ciao. It can mean “hello” and “goodbye.” It’s crossed borders, becoming a greeting used all over the world. And yet? You really shouldn’t be saying it when you go to Italy.
I know, right? Let me explain.
The word ciao (pronounced CHOW) is, today, thought of as very much Italian, but its origins are in the Venetian dialect. (That dialect has proven to be a rich source of words we use in English, too, but that’s a subject for another article.) In the Venetian dialect, the phrase s-ciào vostro means “I am your slave” – and over time, the phrase was abbreviated to simply s-ciào, while retaining the same meaning. Although the connotation even among Venetians was more akin to “I’m at your service,” or “holler if you need me,” that old phrase eventually morphed into the word still used in Italian for “slave” – schiavo (pronounced sk|YA|vo).
Because of this history, Italians – even those who aren’t Venetian and can’t speak or understand the Venetian dialect – seem to instinctively know that ciao isn’t an innocuous greeting to be thrown around to anyone you meet. They’ve been brought up thinking it’s incredibly informal – too informal – and not to be used in polite company. You’ll find this to be especially true with older generations.
What does this mean for you, the traveler? It means that if you want to offer a polite greeting to a shop owner, a waiter, or just someone you pass in the street, you’ll need to have an alternative to ciao.
Sadly, the all-purpose application of ciao – being used for both hellos and goodbyes – doesn’t apply to any of the alternatives. For these options, it depends usually on what time of day it is.
For the record, I usually go with salve or whichever of the buongiorno/buona sera options is appropriate for the time of day.
Here’s the thing – you’re going to hear ciao being said all the time when you’re in Italy, and then you’re going to wonder why I made such a fuss about it. If you’re paying attention, though, you’re likely to notice that the people using it with one another are very familiar – they’re not casually passing in the street or exchanging money for goods – and they’re typically in the same peer group. An Italian teenager who waves goodbye to her friends with a ciao and a couple of cheek kisses will still turn around and use one of the other options listed above on a stranger or an elder.
Italian is a living language, and some of this is changing. It may not be too far in the future when ciao is perfectly acceptable and carries none of its former “slave” connotations. Even if that happens, however, Italian remains one of the languages that has a formal and informal version, and it’s never a good idea to start with the informal. I’ve gotten more than a few unappreciative looks from Italians to whom I said ciao before I realized what was going on.
Will you make mistakes? Sure. We all do. And if you can avoid it, if you can say salve instead of ciao, you might end up on an Italian’s good side, getting compliments on your language skills along with extra big smiles. They genuinely appreciate it when we try – and succeed – with their language, and there’s nothing like that look of gratitude.
As a student of Italian in Australia I enjoyed your explanation of Ciao and the origins- As I am coming to Italy in both July and again in September with other students, I will certainly be aware of situations of when and where to use ciao and will make sure I am more polite when addressing strangers – Thankyou
You’re welcome, Pamela! I’m glad it was useful. As I said in the article, I typically default to “salve” as a greeting most of the time.
Of course we are very tolerant with tourists who use “ciao” in wrong ways: we are aware that it is one of the most known italian words in the world.
It is true that we would never even say “ciao” to our dentist, or even to our mother in law, if they don’t use it with us first. If someone answers to your “ciao” with a cold “buongiorno” he could be thinking: “we are not brothers, we are not friends, who *** are you?”.
We could say that you can use “ciao” when there are not (more) social barriers between you and your interlocutor. But sometimes it can be roughly used to underline them: your boss may salute you with a “ciao”, but you are supposed to answer “buongiorno” o “arrivederci”. This means “I can say ciao to you as I would do with a kid or a servant, but you can’t do the same”.
All this is quite strange if you think of the venetian original word, that meant so much respect.
Anyway in small villages of Salento (south of Puglia region) you will receive a “ciao” by strangers in the street. It’s weird, but it makes you feel safe and at home.
Very nice blog! Ciao! 🙂
Thank you so much for the comment! I think for foreign visitors, the confusion is in not knowing the layers of social levels and when it would be okay to use “ciao” and when it wouldn’t. We know the layers are there, but we don’t always know what they are. So it’s just safer to start with something like “salve” and avoid the cold “buongiorno,” I think! 🙂
That’s interesting to hear that “ciao” is used so regularly with strangers in Salento. I wonder if that’s true of other more rural places in Italy?
I ‘m not sure, but I believe that in every other rural place of Italy they are much more formal.
In Salento they also regularly use the familiar “tu” instead of “lei” o “voi” at first glance in streets and shops. This is quite uncommon: it is considered impolite in the rest of Italy.
How interesting, that they also use the “tu” as a default. I’ve not yet been to Salento, now I’m even more curious about it!
Ciao vs. chow.
Which came first?
How could 2 countries thousands of miles apart come up with the same word that sounds the same and basically means the same thing????
Well, “chow” is just the English phonetic spelling of the Italian word. The correct spelling is still the Italian one. 🙂
Maybe he meant to type chao? Because in the US, chow is definitely food (with a humorous hint) or to eat food like “Chow down on on this burrito”.
I thought “chow”(in English) meant food? Not Hello/Goodbye…
It depends on context. I’ve seen people write “chow” when they meant “ciao” in English, but usually “chow” does mean food.
Ohio is an informal ‘Good Morning’ in Japanese. Or a US State.
I’m sure there are dozens of these coincidences in languages around the world.
Hehehe, well, really at least where i am from Firenze (Florence), we use alot of dialect, and ciao is pretty common espacially as teenagers, altough what you say is true, that’s really lost in old italian, ‘Salve’ is what i would say if i entered a shop, but if i entered my friend’s home i would say ciao if i am comfortable with him. I am actually a little bit ashamed of my Italian, its not very “high class” and i don’t use much Jargon, but if you google ‘accento di un carabiniere’ you will hear the polite way to speak Italian, anyway nice article and i apolagise in advance if i misspell some words.
Thank you for your comment! I agree, I say “ciao” with people I know – but I’ve learned to start with “salve” with strangers. 🙂 I like the tip about “accento di un carabiniere” – I’ll have to try that!
as a native speaker even if I agree with your translation I’d like to offer a tip. even if is true that you can use buongiorno e buona sera for both, hello and goodbye, they sound quite strange. As goodbye, better to use buona giornata and buona serata instead.
Thank you for the insight, Elisa! I’ll have to update my article. 🙂
It’s even a bit trickier than that. I live in Salento, Puglia. I have a large group of friends with whom I use the familiar form ‘tu’ ‘te’ or ‘ti’ all the time. At the end of the evening’s exertions, when you drive your friend(s) back home or vice versa, we usually say “buona notte” because it’s understood that the evening is over and everyone’s going to bed, no more carousing etc. Often it’s combined with a ‘ciao’ just for good measure: “Ciao! Buona notte!”
If instead, you take leave of some friends mid evening, so they are very likely not calling it quits and going home to beddy-bye, and are instead going to continue their evening elsewhere, then buona serata is perfect – “have a good evening”. I totally agree that in this context “buona sera”, though correct, is frigidly formal. (say it to the waiters in a restaurant, or the staff at a theater, any one with whom you are NOT informal, as you leave.)
Hope this adds some clarity, but …
Yes, the language is so much more nuanced when you get beyond simple exchanges as a short-term visitor! I’m sure every language is that way, though. Thanks for the additional input, Will!
Any more language hints?
Ha! Plenty. I just haven’t gotten around to writing about them yet. 🙂
If you definitely know their evening hasn’t finished, say “buona serata” when waving goodbye, as it implies they’ll be doing other things after leaving you.
Also I lived in Salento and yes they do sound rough and uncultured to Italian years with their unwarranted familiarity. If you’re a foreigner just follow the local mores, or if in doubt go formal.
Agreed, my default is formal, until I learn otherwise. Better safe (and polite!) than sorry. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I like your explanation of the history of the word ciao, although the translation really is “hi” and “bye.” Knowing this, it is apparent why one would not use such an informal phrase with someone one does not know well, such as a shopkeeper, taxi driver, etc.
Thanks for the note! In the US, though, “hi” and “bye” are commonly used whether you know someone or not, so a more detailed explanation was called for. 🙂
Lovely explanation. And a very interesting conversations following in the comments. Thank you very much. Coming to Italy in October – can’t wait!
Thanks for the note, Sheryl, & I agree – I loved the contributions in the comments. Thoughtful readers are so wonderful. 🙂
Thanks for the derivation. I learned pretty quickly that “Ciao” was only used with friends/family, but no one ever mentioned the background of the word. Another expression to take one’s leave that I’ve heard a lot is, “Buon proseguimento della giornata,” or “di serata” or “di vacanza” or “di lavoro”…
Wow, those options are mouthfuls, aren’t they? 🙂 Thanks for the note!
thanks for the explanations. a great topic for any of us visiting Italy, until the customs change.
You’re most welcome, Marty!
I leave tonight for a month’s stay in Italy, and this one page has given me invaluable information on how to conduct myself while I’m there. Thank you so much!!
I’ll be there for the 3-day San Trifone Festival in Bari. Does anyone have any experience with that celebration?
Thanks so much for your note, Christine! I love hearing stuff like this. 🙂 Have a wonderful trip!
Thank you! Leaving in early March for 9 days in Italy. This is helpful.
You’re welcome, I’m glad it’s useful! Have a great trip.
It all depends on whether the rapport is dominantly casual or formal – simple as that. No, not so simple. In some places, like a great deal of the South, familiarity often comes fairly quickly- (the first evening one meets someone. Among coevals maybe within the initial conversation! But some Southerners – more rigid, or with more pronounced bourgeois origins, might take exception to that. And the North is generally different, but again, many exceptions. It takes practice, intuition, and resiliency for those inevitable mistakes.
I’ll never forget the anecdote a British friend told me about a midday visit to a bar/trattoria in a tiny remote town lost in the mountainous North. The taciturn owner had barely acknowledged him when he entered and it soon became clear that he had no special regard for foreigners. And of course my friend, at that time not even a novice in Italian, but a very nice guy, greeted him with a loud, cheery “Ciao!”. The guy looked him straight in the eyes, without the slightest hint of kindness, and repeated back, slowly, strongly, wonderingly “Ciao!??” as though he were inquiring “Who the f@ç# do you think you are??”
Cracking up right now picturing it.
Don’t be in any way discouraged. The vast majority will welcome you and forgive any gaffes. Here’s a tip: go ahead and correct yourself, if you think you may have just made a mistake “Excuse me, maybe I should say ‘buona serata’ instead?” You will sound at once intelligent, sensitive and attuned.
I can imagine the look on the barkeep’s face. 🙂 And yes, this is why I always suggest people default to the formal.
In 1962 on an auto stop trip the driver of a lovely Lancia told us ciao was derived from service. Thanks confirming and explaining it! I never knew whether to believe him.
What a fun anecdote! Thanks for sharing it.
Please never say “Salve”! Take a decision: or ciao or Buongiorno (or Buona sera).
I’ve had the exact opposite advice on multiple occasions – especially about not saying “ciao.”
A Vietnamese word for hello and good bye is CHAO, which also pronounce the same as CIAO.
Do you have any clue about this coincidence?
Vietnamese history is about 3000 years old.
Oh, how fascinating! I have no idea why the words would sound the same. I know Vietnam and France have a historical connection, but I don’t know about any connection between Italy and Vietnam.