Salve! The Only Italian Greeting You Need to Know

If I had to guess, I imagine many U.S. citizens who travel abroad and don’t speak any language other than English feel some amount of shame. I know I do.

We as Americans know that in many other developed countries it has become common for students to learn a second language – often English. And yet in the U.S., many of us continue to speak only the one language.

And no matter how practical the arrangement might actually be – logically it makes some sense to settle on one “universal” language – it still feels like a bit of a power play. Sort of like being the boss and patting your employee on the back, but the employee wouldn’t feel comfortable initiating a pat in the reverse direction.

And so it is that some native English speakers who are planning travel abroad can become almost obsessive about learning greetings in the predominant language of the country they are planning to visit. I know I do.

In this thread, Sharon is curious as to the proper/improper usage of “Ciao” in Italy.

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?

This appears to be a relatively innocuous question about Italian greetings, and one for which there should be a straightforward answer. But consider for a moment all of the words and phrases that you might be greeted with when entering a small shop of some sort in the U.S.:

  • Hello
  • Hi
  • Good morning/afternoon/evening
  • Welcome
  • How are you?
  • Can I help you?
  • [Nod of acknowledgement] Let me know if you have any questions

So, let’s say you are a shop owner here in the U.S. Someone enters your shop, you look up, nod and say “Can I help you?”. The visitor to your shop looks a bit confused, pauses for a moment, and sputters out a “Hawlow”.

No big deal, right? Now you know this is a non-English speaking customer who probably just wants to look around.

And I’m pretty sure that’s how it goes the world over, in the opposite direction.

Still, fellow travelers offer Sharon some really great insight into the various forms of Italian greetings, and for English-only speakers like me who tend to obsess about proper greetings in other languages this thread is hugely informative and entertaining.

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. ~Ellen

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. ~Roberto

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. ~Michael

Despite my own tendency to obsess about learning local language greetings, I still tend to freeze up and lose my voice, as it were, on my first full day in another country. It’s as if the “Bonjour” or “Ni Hao” becomes lodged in my throat, unable to escape, and I just stand there staring at the person who has greeted me. Occasionally I even leave my body and view the scene from a distance – me standing there, nearly frozen, with a look of shock on my face, and the shop keeper looking at me, confounded as to why a simple “hello” has stunned me so.

And that makes me laugh, which doesn’t improve the situation.

What about you? Are you great with foreign greetings, or do you tend to freeze up? Are they something you obsess about? Learn easily?

Read the thread in its entirety: Is “Ciao” too familiar/informal?

Image: “greetings” by Julia Lamphear. CC BY 2.0.


  1. I freeze up too!! I got so frozen that when I was in Paris and faced with a simple yes or no decision on some pastries, instead of saying “Oui” I blurted out “Si” My 1 year of H.S. Spanish taking over.

  2. @Patrick – That is hilarious. I took 2 years of H.S. Spanish some odd decades ago and when we were in France I too found myself wanting to blurt out the very few Spanish words I knew – despite having boned up on some basic French just prior to our trip. It was like my mind was thinking, “Hmmm, that’s not English. Sounds foreign. Must be Spanish.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.