Why You Shouldn’t Say “Ciao” in Italy


Even if you don’t plan on learning Italian before a trip to Italy, you probably know plenty of Italian words already. You’ll be able to recognize many of the things on a restaurant menu, since pasta names in Italy are the same ones used in other parts of the world, and Italian coffee has thankfully spread everywhere. But one Italian word, which has crossed borders and become an incredibly common greeting the world over, is something you might want to think twice about using.

I’m talking here about the word ciao.

It seems innocuous, right? I’ve heard the word ciao described as the Italian version of “aloha,” meaning both “hello” and “goodbye,” so how can that be bad?

As with many things in Italy, it all comes down to history.

History of the Word Ciao

Ciao (pronounced CHOW) as we know it today has its roots in the Venetian dialect, where the phrase s-ciào vostro meant “I am your slave.” Often, s-ciào vostro was shortened to simply s-ciào. While the idea among the Venetians who used with one another wasn’t a literal translation of the phrase (they meant it more along the lines of, “if you need anything, lemme know”), the Italian word that remains currently in use for the word “slave” is schiavo (sk|YA|vo) which is where s-ciào came from in the first place. So the link isn’t entirely meaningless.

Now, whether the old s-ciào was intended to imply actual slavery or not, because of the origins of ciao it remains to this day a very informal greeting or parting word. This means that unless you know someone already, or unless they say ciao to you first, your best bet is to pick another slightly more formal greeting.

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Alternatives to Ciao

You’ve no doubt heard the word arrivederci (ahr|ree|veh|DEHR|chee) in Italian films or if you’ve spent any time in Italy already, but this is also an informal word. The formal version is arrivederLa (ahr|ree|veh|DEHR|lah), so if this one strikes your fancy then I’d recommend starting with arrivederLa and waiting until the person you’re talking with tells you that’s too formal. At that point, arrivederci is perfectly fine. One important point with either of these options, however, is that they only mean goodbye – not hello – so you can’t use them to start a conversation, only to end one.

You could also use the words buongiorno (bwon|JOR|noh) or buona sera (bwon|ah SEHR|ah), depending on the time of day. These can be both greetings or parting words.

But perhaps my favorite alternative to ciao is even simpler, and you don’t need to worry about a formal or informal version or what time of day it can be used. It’s salve (SAHL|vey), which is more formal than ciao but not as formal as arrivederLa – it’s the perfect compromise. It’s incredibly polite, and instead of hinting at a meaning of slavery the word salve hints at a meaning of good health, which is a lovely way to greet people if you ask me.

Unfortunately, the only quirk with salve is that it’s not used when you say goodbye, so when leaving people I don’t know well I’d still go with buongiorno or buona sera (or you can use arrivederLa or arrivederci to say goodbye, too).

Does this mean I can’t ever say “ciao?”

Of course the answer to this is no. You’ll hear ciao being said all over Italy – it’s an incredibly common greeting throughout the country. But if you’re paying closer attention, you’ll see that it’s almost always used between people who know one another or are in the same peer group. Among strangers, or when addressing an elder or someone more senior, even most Italians typically choose salve or some other more formal greeting.

As with many living languages, this is changing. Younger generations are using ciao more and more as the word of choice for both “hello” and “goodbye,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually it becomes acceptable as a common, everyday, formal-enough greeting. For the time being, however, I can attest to having gotten sideways glances from older Italians I didn’t know to whom I said ciao without thinking.

For the most part, you won’t be seen as rude or overly informal if you simply say ciao to a shopkeeper or the person selling tickets at the museum. But if you can remember to start with salve instead, the Italians will think your language skills are even better than they really are. And in Italy, that’s a big deal.

original photos, from top to bottom, by: Halans, hamron, John C Abell


29 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Say “Ciao” in Italy

  • Ian

    Very useful article. This is my favorite kind of travel article, the kind that gives local knowledge of how to better immerse one’s self in a foreign culture without offending or intruding. Thanks.

  • My MΓ©lange

    We knew NOT to use it when we traveled- thanks to our Italian teacher. But, on our first trip to Venice, the gelato lady said it to us as we were leaving. You should have seen my face *lite up*, because we knew we had just gotten in her good graces, It made my whole day- and we went back to her everyday we were there.

  • jea111

    I’ve read this before about the usage of “ciao”, so I avoided using it in Italy with people I do not know. However, in my travels over the past 6 years, from Venice to Paestum, I’ve been “ciao’d” extensively — by shopkeepers, baristas, hotel desk clerks, taxi drivers, property managers, tour guides and many others. While I carefully avoid using it with elders or a senior person as noted above, I also find that it’s not necessary to take such parochial a viewpoint as this article suggests, especially if someone says “ciao” to you first.

    • Max

      I agree. People use ‘ciao’ all the time. Strangers will say it to you – old or young. You can say it to them. It will be fine.

  • Sonia

    Very helpful article, thanks. This is an excellent reminder to get started with some basic language lessons, in prep for our trip in the fall.

    And I love that license plate, right from my neck o’ the woods. πŸ™‚

  • Jessica Post author

    Jea111, I agree – if someone uses “ciao” with you, you should feel free to use it back to them. It’s sort of like when someone uses the informal “tu” form of a verb with you, inviting you to do the same. Still, I don’t think it’s being parochial to suggest that people don’t default to “ciao” from the outset.

  • Madeline

    great description of “ciao”!

    I’d also add that it has to do with age. Children and younger people are “ciao”d.

    When I first went to Italy as an exchange student at age 17, I was “ciao”‘d all over the place. Then as I went back for various jobs – nannying, as a tour guide, and finally as a corporate executive on an expat assignment, I received only “buongiorno”s. It was a wakeup call for me that I didn’t look young anymore!!

    There was a parallel move from “signorina” to “signora” as well: as in “ciao…. signorina”. “buongiorno, signora”.

    It works in the reverse too: if you are a 30-something, you can usually “ciao” someone younger, but should “salve” or “buongiorno” someone older.

  • Cristina

    All Latin languages “prefer” to be more formal and it’s hard , as a non native, to figure out what’s “proper” and what’s not. Romanian is very similar to Italian even in this respect. Speaking of, “ciao” is also used here , with exactly the same “restrictions”. Like you won’t want to call someone older “ciao” (like NEVER!) while “servus” (“salve” in Italian is a little more “formal”.
    oh yeah and when they switch from saying “ciao” to a more formal way of greeting , it’s a good notice that we aren’t looking young anymore. bummer!

  • BC

    Did you notice that when you go or close a call you get a “ciao ciao” istead of “ciao”?
    And when you are on the phone with someone you love, it’s “ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao”, exactly 5 times? πŸ˜‰

  • Jessica Post author

    Yeah, saying goodbye in Italy using “ciao” is hilarious. I’ve heard people say it way more than five times when getting off the phone!

  • Mary

    This ought to be useful to my friends who will be in Venice shortly, and who have “learned” Italian through watching films having to do with all things Italian – documentaries, operas and, of course, movies. Grazie.

  • Qt

    Just a thing (i’m italian) you never use “arrivederci/la” when meeting someone it is the equivalent of the english “see you later”, literally it could be translated as “to see you again/may i see you again”. So if you start greeting people with that you would seem a little strange πŸ˜‰
    You have to know that not many italians know the origin of “ciao” so its limitation in use are only due to its status of the most informal italian greeting, not really from its meaning. I often use “salve” (literally “be well”) as a greeting, i feel like it is less formal and kind then “buongiorno” but more formal then “ciao”… perfect especially when you are unsure about being formal or not.

  • Ajda

    Just to add another perspective: I come from Slovenia and I was told that sciao was often used as an insult towards the Slavic population in Venetia. So it might be doubly offensive to Slovenes and Croatians… although we do use ciao as a very informal greeting, mainly between young people.

  • Alex

    Lovely analysis of what, on the face of it, is such a simple four letter word!

    Having lived in Italy for quite a number of years, I can confirm that ciao is a confusing little word.

    From my own experiences, the transition has been from ‘buon giorno’ – ‘good day’ and ‘buona sera’ – good evening, which I used with people I did not know or see often, to ‘salve’, which tends to be used, I’ve noticed, when you do not know someone well, but see them quite often. And then, when you know someone, ‘ciao’ is very common. These are all similar to ‘hello’.

    Saying ‘goodbye’ is more complex, but again seems to relate to how well you know someone, or rather, what the relationship between the people is. If you are friends, then ‘ciao’ is normal. If you do not know someone too well, and you address them formally with the ‘Lei’ or ‘Voi’ form, then arrivederci is used. Up here in northern Italy, ‘arrivederLa’ is rare, and I only know of one person, a shopkeeper, who uses ‘arrivederLa’ with me.

    I suspect, but am not 100% sure, that down in south Italy where the third person plural ‘voi’ is still used to address people (only very few of my English students from the south of Italy use this form with me), then ‘goodbye’ would be ‘arrivederLa’.

    It is confusing. As the article above points out, the safe version is ‘salve’ when you meet people you see often, and ‘buon something or other’ for people you do not know. To the same people, use ‘arrivederci’, and you will not go far wrong. Down in the deep south, and when speaking to older people you do not know, use ‘arrivederLa’ when leaving.

    Of course, people from Italy’s deep and rather old fashioned south are to be found up in northern Italy, and this adds to the fun!

    Can you tell a northern Italian from a southern one? I can, just about, but only if they speak, and they have something I can recognise as being a southern Italian accent!

    Alex

  • Nick

    Coming back from a week in Rome we never experienced “Salve” anywhere at the hotel, in restaurants, stores, sites. It was interesting to hear even more informal, shorter versions by our concierge at the hotel–“Ciao, Ciao”, and a chopped off version of good night–just “Sera”

  • Liz

    I was always told that the dialects between regions are almost completely different languages at times. I have a friend who went to Italy and her one of her relatives was this little boy, who’d only recently started school. She only knew what I guess is standard Italian, from high school. Apparently, he, and some other family members, had issues understanding her and not just from her accent.

    But yeah, I remember hearing how “ciao” originated and I was taught that I shouldn’t use it except with people I’m close to or among young people.

    And I have a question, not entirely related. When you’re given “permission” to use the informal tu, do you just switch into it or is there a phrase? I can’t remember my teachers ever mentioning how you transition from Lei to tu.

  • Jessica Post author

    Hi, Liz:

    Yes, the dialects are quite different, even a few KM down the road – and in many cases they’re considered different languages, not just dialects. “Ciao” is getting more prevalent in everyday use, especially among younger generations, but I still avoid it with people I don’t know (especially older people) unless they use it with me first.

    As for giving “permission” to move from the Lei to the tu, the phrase is “dare del tu,” to “give me the tu.” So when someone has decided you’re close enough that you don’t have to be so formal with them anymore, they’ll say “dammi del tu.” Or they’ll just start using the tu form with you, in which case you can *usually* reciprocate (but not always!).

    Ciao,
    Jessica

  • Harry Leverone

    Hi Jessica, I’ve been translating le libre from Pro Loco Leverone site p 31 I found:
    Chi se fia du Corsu, porta a testa in scossu: chi si fida del Corso, porta la sua testa in grembo.
    I guess: If you put your trust in a Corsican, he’ll return your head in a box or something to that effect. I’ve about exhausted my sources. I sure would appreciate any help or hints.
    Thanking you in advance, Harry

  • Jessica Post author

    Hi, Harry:

    I’m afraid I don’t know what that phrase means – it looks like it’s partly in dialect, as well (“du” isn’t Italian, for instance), so you may not have much luck with strictly Italian translation. If you know what dialect it’s written in, or what region it comes from, you could try looking up that dialect or trying to find someone from that area who understands that dialect – but dialects absolutely make translating much more complicated.

    The Italian-English translation site I like best is from Word Reference:
    http://wordreference.com/it/

    But it doesn’t have dialects on it…

    Sorry!
    Jessica

  • Amy

    When I first went to Italy, I found that ‘buongiorno’ and ‘buonasera’ were easy for ‘good day’ and ‘good evening’ and once you’ve got those down, it’s really easy to remember ‘buona giornata’ and ‘buona serata’- have a good day and have a good evening.

    I definitely try to listen to what other people say to me and learn how to respond from them, but I find that most people just use ‘ciao’ now and it’s especially common in the younger generations.

    • Jessica Post author

      Yes, “ciao” is definitely common among younger people – and it’s always good to listen. I just advise people start on the formal end of the scale. It’s much more polite than assuming a level of familiarity your conversation partner doesn’t think you deserve yet!

  • Katja

    This is my third year in southern Italy (starting in Puglia, moving to Calabria, and now finally I’ve made it down as far as Sicily), but I don’t think I’ve ever heard arrivederla. I shall have to listen harder and see if it crops up.

    With regard to ‘salve’, I have a Sicilian friend who really dislikes it because it doesn’t indicate the time of day. I don’t know if this is a widespread opinion (I must ask more people!), but it’s something to think about. Personally, I stick to buongiorno/buona sera for more formal situations, and only use salve or ciao with friends.

    • Jessica Post author

      How funny, that “salve” isn’t time-specific enough for your friend. I think that’s precisely why I find it so handy – I don’t need to look at my watch. πŸ™‚

  • enzo

    i didnt know about this story, i tought the word Ciao derived from a Greek word Thsiao which mean hi…..anyway if u want to make easier just say Salve to be formal with older people or strangers, say ciao with your friends

  • Rob

    Nice website.

    This article was written a while ago, but now a-days Ciao is the most common. Old and Young use it. They use it in restaurants, gelateria, churches, trains, busses, tourist sites, etc. Saying Ciao to someone you don’t know is absolutely acceptable.

    Salve is probably the least common greeting, and at least at the University where I work it’s taught as a phrase shared for people who know each other. We always tell our students learning Italian (and going abroad to Italy) to use Ciao.

    In all the times I’ve been greeted by Italians in Italy (Italian strangers mind you) – never once has someone said arrivaderla. It’s almost always ciao and the rare arrivaderci.

  • Mike

    Ma se sono un adolescente che vuol andare in Italia e puΓ² parlare l’italiano abbastanza bene, sembrerei strano/maleducato se io dicessi “ciao” ad un anziano od estraneo?

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