Chi male comincia, peggio finisce. (A bad beginning makes a bad ending.)
As this Italian proverb indicates, beginnings—like greetings—are very important.
Properly greeting someone might even be considered a fine art.
For instance, when you greet Italians, don’t think a wave and general “Hi!” will suffice to cover everyone in the group. It won’t. You must greet everyone separately.
If you’re under the impression that the ever-popular “Ciao!” is going to get the job done, think again.
And the bacio sulla guancia (kiss on the cheek) gesture? Nope, that’s also not always appropriate.
While saying hello may seem casual, it’s actually a pretty involved process.
Il saluto (the greeting) is the result of many factors.
What version of “hello” to use is determined by the situation, your relationship to the person you’re greeting and even by the anticipation of future dealings—which, hopefully, won’t have a bad ending!
More importantly, it can determine the “flavor” of your relationship—so get off to a good start by saying hello like an Italian native!
A Brief History of Ciao and Why It’s Not Always the Best Choice
Ciao (hello/goodbye) is one word that covers both greeting and leave-taking. It’s similar to the Hawaiian Aloha, the Hebrew Shalom or the French Salut, which all mean hello and goodbye.
It sounds wonderfully informal but it has a decidedly formal origin.
The history of ciao
Ciao comes from the Venetian dialect and is the super-abbreviated version of the original sentiment, S-ciào vostro (I am yours).
It’s generally accepted that originally, the phrase meant “I am your slave,” which established “ownership.” As such, it was originally used as a deferential form of greeting.
Since the phrase was a mouthful, it was shortened to S-ciào.
Then, it was further condensed to become the ciao we recognize today.
The little four-letter word has appeared throughout history in art and literature.
In the 18th century, the prolific writer Carlo Goldini used it in his plays.
Ernest Hemingway was also fond of ciao. He used the expression in “A Farewell to Arms,” which was published in 1929 and is still popular today.
The use of ciao today
It’s mainly used among very close friends. Ciao is best not said to an older person and never in a formal situation.
Ciao a tutti (hello to all) addresses a large group and is very informal.
Ciao-ciao (bye-bye) is an expression that children often use with each other. It’s also used in children’s television shows and Italian cartoons.
A side note: taxi drivers also love ciao-ciao. I heard it almost every time I left a taxi in Rome!
When Is Cheek Kissing Appropriate in Italian Culture?
Another common form of Italian greeting is cheek greeting, but don’t lean in for that kiss just yet! There are a few things you’ll have to remember about this method of saying hello.
First of all, not every situation calls for a cheek kiss. Expect a handshake in formal settings. And by formal settings, I mean anyone who isn’t close friends or family.
Among family and friends, there’s the cheek kissing move. It’s not an actual kiss, although some do an “air kiss” when they touch cheeks. It’s customary to give two “kisses” (air or just cheek touches), one on each side.
From personal experience, I recommend never going back for a third cheek touch. It isn’t generally done and can lead to an awkward moment.
Some men kiss each other on the mouth, which signifies that there’s an extremely close relationship between the men. It’s usually a greeting (or farewell) reserved for sharing between fathers and sons.
And remember—if you cheek kiss hello, cheek kiss goodbye. It’s one of those bookend-type practices!
Hey There! Learn How to Say Hello in Italian with 7 Common Greetings
The acronym KISS applies to the Italian greeting style—but probably not in the way you’re thinking!
What I’m trying to say is, Keep It Simple and Straightforward.
Let the type of relationship you have with the person you’re greeting determine your choice of greeting. Simple!
Leave the cheek kissing to others unless it’s initiated. In that case, respond with the two-cheek touch. Straightforward!
Want to see some of the phrases below in use by native speakers? Visit FluentU and give the authentic videos a watch for some insight on how Italians really greet each other.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It’s an entertaining way to immerse yourself in Italian the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
There are lots of better choices for greeting than saying ciao or cheeking it. Let’s check them out:
1. Buon giorno (Good day/Good morning)
Buon giorno literally means “good day” and is a wonderfully straightforward—yet versatile—expression.
It has a dual purpose and can be used both to say hello and goodbye. This one’s an excellent, can’t-go-wrong greeting.
If you’re heading out in the morning and pass il portiere (the concierge) in the hotel lobby, it’s nice to nod and say, “Buon giorno.”
Chances are, you’ll get a polite “Buon giorno” in return!
This little phrase is a traveler’s best friend, expression-wise.
2. Buon pomerrigio (Good afternoon)
Buon pomerrigio means “good afternoon” but, honestly, it’s not widely used in everyday settings.
It’s seen on television and in movies and is perfectly acceptable but it’s often neglected in favor of another greeting—which we’ll discuss in a moment.
But don’t be surprised if you’re watching a popular Italian drama series and hear the phrase!
3. Buona sera (Good evening)
Buona sera is technically meant for use in the evening (or when the evening is approaching) but, honestly, it’s used from midday on.
In fact, if you say buona sera any time after il pranzo (lunch), no one will think anything of it—besides thinking that you’re being wonderfully cordial.
And you can certainly expect a buona sera in return for your effort!
4. Buona notte (Good night)
Buona notte means “good night” but isn’t used the way Americans use it, as a bedtime expression.
Italians say buona notte in passing or when meeting up anytime past early evening.
Meeting friends at a chic restaurant for dinner? Buona notte is the best way to greet everyone!
5. Piacere (Nice to meet you)
Piacere is a little on the formal side. Okay, it’s a lot on the formal side.
But this word is perfect if you’re meeting a new colleague or even your new boyfriend’s uncle.
Sometimes formal works!
6. Come stai?/Come va? (How are you?)
Come stai and come va are both pretty casual ways to greet someone.
While neither actually says “hello,” the greeting is implied when you inquire about someone’s health.
Responses to this greeting vary.
You might reply così così (so so).
Sto bene (I’m good) and non c’è male (not too bad) are both acceptable replies, as well.
7. Salve (Hello)
Salve is a proper greeting that’s great for meeting new people or when saying hello in somewhat formal situations.
It makes a good impression, so if you’re in doubt over which greeting to use, this is a safe choice!
Let’s face it. First meetings are important—in any language.
Power up your Italian with these simple phrases and say hello in style with absolutely no awkwardness or indecision.
But remember: The appropriate version of “hello” is situational and determined by several factors—so choose wisely!
Buona fortuna! (Good luck!)
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