Is "Ciao" too familiar/informal?

I understand that when entering a shop or other business, it is polite to greet the shopkeeper. Is using "Ciao" to familiar and/or informal? Should I use "Buongiorno" or "Buonasera" (depending on the time of day)? What about when I leave?

Grazie!

Posted by Kristen
Chicago
514 posts

Since you are obviously not a native speaker, I think any attempt at speaking the language will be appreciated. However, the standard is to use the formal when talking with someone you don't know. When you leave-
Buona giornata! (Have a good day)
Buona Serata (Have a good evening)
Arrivaderla (formal good bye, as opposed to arrivederci which is the informal good bye).

I am hoping some of the native speakers chime in on this. But I always use the formal.

Posted by Kathy
San Carlos, CA, USA
234 posts

I have never had a shopkeeper address me with "Ciao." It is always "Buon Giorno" or "Buona Sera". Stick with those.

Posted by Ellen
Centennial, CO, USA
1477 posts

Just back from 2.5 weeks in Italy...all the shop owners greeted me with Buon Giorno or Buona Sera...never Ciao.

You can shorten the greeting to "Giorno".... and maybe add Grazie as you leave their shops.

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
4881 posts

Don't use Ciao.

Ciao is too informal and although Italians would forgive a non native speaker, however I wouldn't use "ciao" unless I'm dealing with a close friend or family member.

It's also acceptable to use Ciao with a kid, even if you don't know him/her. You should always use more formal greetings in all other circumstances. I never use 'ciao' even with my former neighbors in Florence, even though they saw me grow up since I was a toddler and I've known them for decades. They are older than me and it's impolite to address a person older than you informally, unless s/he is a relative or someone very close. Actually I have some friends that address their own grandparents formally.

When you enter a shop address the keeper with: Buon Giorno or Buona Sera (depending if morning or afternoon/evening respectively).

When you leave you can say:
Arrivederci/Arrivederla.

Arrivederci is more informal than Arrivederla (which is formal) but not as informal as Ciao.

Therefore both Arriverci and Arrivederla are equally acceptable and I would use them interchangeably unless I'm meeting the Pope or the Prime Minister (actually the Prime Minister is so young that I might be tempted to say 'ciao' to him)

You can add Buona Giornata or Buona Serata if you wish (I don't use that too often, I generally say Arrivederla/erci and leave it at that).

Note that Buona Giornata or Buona Serata, unlike Buon Giorno or Buona Sera, are used only while departing not when you arrive.

Posted by Laurel
Rome, Italy
2861 posts

Yes, Jeannine, "Salve" is used. I have encountered it primarily salve when approaching a ticket desk in a museum, or a guard at a gate. Usually it is used with someone you do not know at all or know only slightly. It is a viable alternative to buongiorno and is often used with buongiorno as in "Salve signora, buongiorno." (Hello, Ma'm, good day.)

Posted by Quirite
Rome, Lazio, Italy
328 posts

"What about salve? Is it ever used?"

Yes, we do use it very often... especially when you can't figure out the proper way of greeting
someone. As for 'ciao', I agree in that it's definitely too informal - I wouldn't use it with a stranger...

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

Sharon, Lisaew's examples don't apply to the situations you're describing. Email and the internet have completely different rules.

"Ciao" is a lot like "Hey" in parts of the US. It really is too informal to use with strangers in that setting.

You really can't go wrong with Salve (pronounced SAHL-veh). That way you don't have to figure out what time of day to switch from Buongiorno to Buona sera. It's what I use all the time when I'm in Italy.

Posted by Sharon
Indianapolis
115 posts

Thank you so much for all the great advice. If I do use buongiorno and buonasera, what time of day does that happen?

Sharon

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

The switch from BG to BS happens sometime between lunch and 6 pm or so. Depends on who you ask.

And as Roberto mentions, if you really want to impress them, toss out a Buona giornata or Buona serata when you leave. Basically, it means "Have a nice day." or "Have a nice evening." If it's late, say you're leaving a restaurant after 10 or 11, you can say "Buona notte," for Good night.

Posted by Sandra
Illinois
256 posts

Don't say Ciao. Everywhere I go in Italia, everybody is so formal, children and grown-ups.

I'm a lazy one-syllable gal, but that's No excuse in Italy. No one allowed me to get away with Ciao. I tried it but everybody corrected me.

I have to be multi-syllabic in Italia. That 's the culture and I respect that.

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

And do learn the correct way to pronounce "buongiorno". It's bwon-JOHR-noh. Not bwon-jee-YOR-no. It follows the same rule as "Ciao" which we know to pronounce "chow" and not "chee-yow".

In the same way, "Giorgio" is pronounced "JOHR-joh", not "jee-YOR-jee-yoh." We have similar pronunciations with some words in English, such as "Georgia".

Just a pet peeve of mine. :-)

Posted by Sharon
Indianapolis
115 posts

Buongiorno! I want to thank everyone who helped with this question. I had a great 2 weeks in Italy and kept your advice in mind the whole time. What I found interesting was that even when I used the more formal greetings and farewells, some Italians used "ciao". I asked an American ex-pat about this and her speculation was maybe some Italians use "ciao" with tourists as a default because often this is all the tourists use/know. Had lots of fun learning and practicing, though!

Arrivederci!

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

Glad to know we were helpful. As far as Italians using "ciao" with people they don't know (tourists), in addition to your friend's theory, I've been told that a lot of younger Italians (under 40) are much more likely to use the informal when talking with others, esp. if the others are also under 40. The whole informal/formal distinction in Italy is one that I'm sure varies by socioeconomic class, by heritage, by age, and by region, just like the use of certain verb conjugations. (Passato prossimo in central and northern versus passato remoto in the south.)

Posted by Quirite
Rome, Lazio, Italy
328 posts

[...] in addition to your friend's theory, I've been told that a lot of younger Italians (under 40) are much more likely to use the informal when talking with others, esp. if the others are also under 40. The whole informal/formal distinction in Italy is one that I'm sure varies by socioeconomic class, by heritage, by age, and by region [...]

My two cents: I think Michael is right here... however, while the use of ciao doesn't quite vary from region to region - or because of economic standards - it's certainly true that younger people are more incline to use it among their peers (duh, I sound like a boring pshrink!).

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
20293 posts

Sharon,

I've also found on many occasions that Italians sometimes reply with "Ciao" rather than one of the more formal terms. In some cases these are people I've known and dealt with for several years, while in other cases it's shop keepers and others who I'm only dealing with for a short time. I'm often a bit confused on how to reply when others use Ciao, but I try to use the "safe" approach and use Arrivaderci most of the time.

Posted by Sharon
Indianapolis
115 posts

Ken,

That is how I handled those situations, too. I figured it was good practice and less chance of mistakes!

Sharon

Posted by LeeB.
211 posts

Sharon: I just got back from Italy a couple of weeks ago and found that the shop/restaurant workers always said "Arrivederci" to me as I left their establishments. No one ever said "ciao."

Posted by jcpatrick421
4 posts

The only time I heard "Ciao" in the Italian Hill Towns and Florence this year was by shopkeepers. And often, it was doubled - "Ciao, Ciao", spoken very quickly and almost as one word by the younger clerks. Always "Buongiorno" when entering the shops.

Posted by jmspector
1 posts

FYI Our lovely walking tour guide in Venice told us the origin of Ciao was the expression "I am your slave". Said in Italian very quickly over and over, it became Ciao!

Posted by blanc1g
1 posts

Giorno!

I just returned from Italy yesterday and noticed something very peculiar...I was greeted with ciao on more than one occasion. I suspect it was due to my being in a touristy area. However, the great majority of the time I would be greeted with the more formal. This was most true in Tivoli.

Buona giornata!

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
4881 posts

Well, in these past few days I noticed that all shop/hotel staff is greeting me with a "ciao", even though the fact that I'm quite older than they would normally require at least an "arrivederci". I guess Italy has become much more informal since I have left.

Posted by Quirite
Rome, Lazio, Italy
328 posts

[...] I guess Italy has become much more informal since I have left.

Perhaps, they're just trying to appeal more to their customers by treating them in a more informal way.

Posted by Larry
Carmel, CA, USA
553 posts

Did you know that the phrase has long been very common in Brasil too, only there they spell it "tchau"!
Ciao for now, Larry

Posted by Fabio
Ravenna
8 posts

My way:
1) Buongiorno and Buonasera: formal, for everywhere and everyone ... BS late, late afternoon not specific time but depending on light
Buon Pomeriggio: never used
Next if an hand shake is needed: "Piacere", "Molto lieto", "Onorato" "depending the influence or noble" of the person you have met.

2) Buonagiornata: I use it when I'm sure that I'll see again that person. Never used with people that I don't know like shop ..
Buongiornata or Buonaserata from someone that I don't know it sounds me you want to show as friend but you are not.

3) Ciao: only with friends or people you are connected by a bit of time but not involved in business or red tape.
Young people now say Ciao to everybody and I feel a little bit strange when someone say "Ciao" to me and I don't know that person.

p.s.
1) speaking with someone you don't know I always use "Lei" (not only female)
2) Many, many years ago the same but with "Voi" (not plural) eg. son who speak with his father
3) exactly: Ciao means "sciavo" "Your slave" Venetian Dialect, and you have read it in a Venice book because it was born there (as far as I know)

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

Fabio, benvenuto al Travel Forum! It's always great to have locals participate in these discussions.

Posted by Laura
Washington DC
45 posts

Oh man, I wish I had read this earlier! Our trip isn't until the fall, but I definitely used Ciao in emails with owners in arranging places to stay. Oops- hopefully they won't remember that when I arrive!

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

Laura, don't sweat it. Email etiquette is much more informal. You're fine.

Posted by Bob
Reading, PA, USA
305 posts

Some of the B&Bs I was making reservations with used "Caio" in their replies to me.

Posted by Fabio
Ravenna
8 posts

This is true with US guests.
If someone wrote Ciao from US I feel quite Ok.
If someone wrote Ciao from EU I don't feel very good.
If someone wrote Ciao from IT I feel quite bad.

We use "Lei" (third person) when we start a speak or mail in Italian with a final "Distinti saluti". (Very polite)
I think should be the same from US or EU but, after 2 or 3 mails we can end with Ciao :-)
Not the same thing from an Italian, at the end "Cordiali saluti" but never Ciao, maybe after you have met the person if it is younger than you.

Cordiali saluti

Posted by Kim
San Francisco
316 posts

I asked my Italian friend this question before we left on our trip and he said Ciao is very informal, but you can probably say it because "americans can get away with anything!" - which led me to believe that it is not proper to say it, but would be forgiven because you didn't really know better. :)

Posted by Fabio
Ravenna
8 posts

I think US can say Ciao because they came from zero caste ... the opposite than in India,
so I feel good because it is real, or I hope so.
Anyway I think that you can say Ciao after a little bit, overall if you feel good with the other one ;-)

Basically, for me, Ciao is for friends and people you know, for mail as well.

Posted by lisaew
Albany, NY
160 posts

Just got back :-). Had a great vacation in Levanto and Cinque Terre. I was greeted mostly with Buongiorno and Buonasera. However, I noticed a LOT of younger people said simply: "sera" even in late morning.

I did get Ciao from people who I had seen a second time and beyond. So, for example, if I went to a bakery the first time it was either Buongiorno and Buonasera. The second time it was Ciao. I often got Ciao Bella also. I was called "Bella" a few times mostly by younger people. I was called Madame instead of Senora most all the time. Very often they started to speak to me in French...LOL...they must have thought I looked French?

To establish that I spoke English instead of Italian, I would say "Hello" before I asked a question and made sure to make eye contact. When I did that, if they knew English they would then switch and try to communicate in English.

Posted by Fabio
Ravenna
8 posts

"Sera" in late morning ??? this it doesnt work for me.
"Ciao bella" is quit ugly, foreign people or not.

Posted by lisaew
Albany, NY
160 posts

WOW I hope these people were not insulting to me by saying Ciao Bella. I was dressed well compared to other tourists who were in shorts, golf shirts and tank tops. I was "'formal" compared to most tourists. I felt I was treated very respectfully by all and given amazing service in all restaurants. In fact, I thought I was given better service than most other tourists. Not sure why but that's what happened. I smile a lot and I have a very big smile. Maybe that had something to do with it?

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

FWIW re the previous post, an Italian friend of mine has told me that one of the many indicators that someone is American is that we smile waaay more than Italians do. It leads some Italians to think of us as simpletons, while other Italians find it charming.

Posted by lisaew
Albany, NY
160 posts

It is a natural for me to smile as I am former television personality/host. I can't help it. It is a reflex. But I was careful NOT to smile in transit situations such as train stations, airports etc. But when I went into a store, if someone greeted me I immediately smiled as it is a natural reflex.

Posted by darioalb
26 posts

"Ciao Bella" is not an ugly or rude way of saying.
My mom always said so to my little girlfriends who were looking for me on the phone. It's been almost 1,000 years, but I don't think the language changed that much!
There is also a famous partisans' song called "Bella Ciao" and it is by no means vulgar.
This is the typical expression of spoken language that stays in the "gray zone". Much depends on the speaker, the listener, the tone or the situation.
Shopkeepers wouldn't use it with a grown up Italian woman because it would be way too familiar, but many tourists almost expect for it.

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

Darioalb, I'm pretty sure what Fabio was saying in the context of the responses prior to his is that saying "Ciao, bella" to an adult woman who is a complete stranger would be thought of as presumptuous and rude. So you're agreeing with Fabio when you said: "Shopkeepers wouldn't use it with a grown up Italian woman because it would be way too familiar." That was precisely his point.

Posted by lisaew
Albany, NY
160 posts

Just to clarify...I got "ciao" when I visited a place a second time. I got ciao bella or bella at some restaurants. It was like buono bella as in "good" or "glad you like it." I hope this does not sound conceited and forgive me if it does (not my intent) but waiters and waitresses seemed to like to wait on me and liked to converse with me in talk about the food and wine. I am a gourmet cook and food and wine is one of my favorite topics. I got the impression they were just being nice.

Posted by Fabio
Ravenna
8 posts

Maybe some parts of Italy used to say "Ciao bella !!".
eg. in Rome many people say "A bellooo !!" and I like this because it feels very (romans) local !
Maybe some families says this way as an habit.
Just to be clear, again, I dont like this way and if you are in some serious business, involved with Italians, you wont hear, probably, this way from them, the 100th times as well ... or depend which kind of people you have met.
From the other side an Italian man doesnt like a women says "Ciao bello" ... one time as lover maybe, but not more the one ;-)

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
6315 posts

I see we're drifting now into a discussion of when it's appropriate to call someone Bella or Bello. FWIW, I was called "Bello" last year by the older gentleman who owned and operated the bar in Rome where we went each day to get our breakfast (on Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere). But he didn't call me that until probably the 4th or 5th day after I had had several short fun conversations with him in Italian. We always bused the outdoor table that we sat at, and I think he got a kick out of our doing that since no one else did. Very avuncular guy.

That said, I think it's safe to say that you might end up ruffling some feathers as a tourist if you decide to call an Italian "Bello" or "Bella". The subtleties and regional differences escape us. As Stan said at the beginning, "You can never go wrong being too formal."