If there’s one Italian word (other than vino or pasta) that everyone knows, it is “ciao”, the greeting almost all Italians use to say hello or goodbye to friends or to people with whom they are on informal terms. You’ll hear this word all the time; it is even used by some in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Latin America, France, Spain and Scandinavia where many consider it chic.
But what many people who are just here on a visit don’t know is that there are rules regarding the use of this very simpatico salutation. Even though it may seem to you that everyone says it to everyone, this is NOT the case. The young waiter at your trattoria may say “ciao” to you when you leave. The hawker trying to get you into his restaurant by say “ciao”and asking you where you are from. But as jolly as this may be, it is really not appropriate.
One thing to remember about the “ciao” is that the emphasis and number of times it is repeated can subtly change its significance.
An elongated “Oh ciaouuuu”, shows the person is really glad to see you. In any case, one “ciao” is simply a hello. Two ciaos “ciao, ciao”, is almost always a farewell, not a greeting. And a whole bunch of ciaos can mean the departing person is in a hurry. The most ciaos I have heard in a row and have been on the receiving end of were seven (ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao), but this was at the end of a long phone conversation.
Generally, ciao is followed immediately by “come stai”. “Ciao, come stai?“. Hi.How are you. And if you pay attention, you will also hear ciao often followed by bella or bello. It isn’t really, hi, beautiful. It’s more like saying, Hi, my good friend, I am glad to see you. On the other hand, a different kind of elongated ciao, this time preceded by an “eh, si” can express disbelief. “Eh, si. Cia-aooo!” As in “Oh, sure, tell me another”.
You on the other hand, should be cautious. The “ciao” is not something you just bandy about, using it with anyone you run into – as in shopkeepers, barmen who serve you your cappuccino, doctors you may have to consult, pharmacists, bus drivers, saleswomen at Gucci, shoe salesmen at Ferragamo and ticket takers at the Coliseum. What you do say when you enter an establishment of any sort, or begin speaking with the pharmacist or the teller at the post office, is buon giorno, which you can also say when you exit,(unless you want to try buona giornata, the Italian way to say “have a good day”).
If you are unsure about how familiar you want (or don’t want) to be, another option is the intermediate form of salutation – “salve” (sal-vay) − from the Latin for “be of good health”. But buongiorno – it can be written as one word or two – is more correct. And just to be thorough, if it is after lunch, you would say – coming or going – buona sera (or – as you head off −buona serata, “have a good evening”), while at night when you take your leave, you will say buonanotte. (By the way, “buonanotte” can also be sarcastic as in “she told him what she thought of him and then, buonanotte”). And we mustn’t forget the old classic when you are winding up any kind of visit: “Arrivederci”, a formal way of saying “see you”. But unless you are with people you can classify as current or potential friends, you should not be throwing out a “ciao”.
There are several theories regarding the origin of the word “ciao” According to one account it derives, most recently, from the Venetian phrase s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su s-ciàvo, literally meaning “I am your slave”. This, of course, was not a literal statement of fact, but rather a promise of good will among friends, much like the way Anglo-Saxons might say “at your service”.
This greeting was eventually shortened to ciao, lost all its servile connotations and came to be used as an informal salutation by speakers of all classes.The Treccani dictionary suggests, however, that ciao might come from chiao or chiaio, medieval words for the Latin clāru(m) and thus might signify a wish for a happy – light-filled day. And yet another theory is that the word may be derived from yet another medieval custom, that of wishing people l’aciāriu(m), a Latin word meaning steel or blade. That greeting would have been similar to a paradoxical AUGURIO such as “break a leg” in English or “in bocca al lupo” in Italian. More or less, “well, here’s hoping you don’t get run through by anyone’s blade”. From acciaro you got acciao, the Italian word for steel, and then, finally, ciao.
Okay, okay, I admit it. It’s true that nothing untoward will happen if you do say “ciao” to any of the above people or others like them. They will know you are a tourist, of course. But they will also know, should they bother to think about it, that you haven’t a clue to what life is like in Italy where – although things are changing and have certainly changed a lot from even 20 years ago – society is still much more stratified than our own. When one goes to a foreign country, one probably should make just a teeny-weeny effort to fit in, don’t you think? And, in addition, if you are a woman, ciao-ing the wrong person can also be just a little bit risky, immediately implying a certain availability of another kind.