We’ve all heard the informal greeting ciao ("hi" or "bye") and the more formal buongiorno ("good morning" or "hello"). But when is the right—or wrong—time to use them? And what are the variations and alternatives?
In Il Commissario Manara - Un delitto perfetto, a freshly transferred Commissioner is greeting his new boss. He certainly wouldn’t say ciao. He says buongiorno. If it were after noon (technically after 12 noon, but more likely later) he would say buonasera ("good evening," "good afternoon," or "hello").
Buongiorno. -Si può sapere, di grazia, che fine ha fatto?
Good morning. -Can one know, may I ask, where you have been?Play Caption
At the market, Agata is addressing the vegetable vendor with respect. It is polite to add signora (ma’am) or signore (sir) when addressing someone you don’t know well, or when you don’t know their name. Agata’s friend just says a general buongiorno ("good morning") to everyone (a little less formal but still perfectly acceptable):
Signora buongiorno. -Buongiorno. -Volevo fare vedere alla mia amica Catena... -Buongiorno, piacere.
Madam, good morning. -Good morning. -I wanted to show my friend Catena... -Good morning, nice to meet you.
Captions 23-24, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
Agata and her friend Catena are still at the market. Catena says buongiorno since she doesn’t know anyone at all. Agata just uses her vendor’s name (Giuseppe) to greet him, and he greets her using the familiar form:
Buongiorno. -Giuseppe! -Ciao Agata.
Good morning. -Giuseppe! -Hi Agata.
Caption 8, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
Another vendor is saying goodbye to her customers: ciao to those to she knows well and arrivederci (literally, "until we see each other again") to those she doesn’t:
Grazie. Arrivederci, ciao.
Thanks. Goodbye, bye.
Captions 44-45, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
One version of "hello" has a very limited application: pronto. It literally means "ready," and it's how Italians answer the phone:
Pronto, Sicily Cultural Tour. Buongiorno.
Hello, Sicily Cultural Tour. Good morning.
Caption 1, Pianificare - un viaggioPlay Caption
Still another way to greet someone is salve (hello). Less formal than buongiorno, it is still polite and you can use it all by itself. It is especially useful when you’re not sure how formal to be or whether it is morning or afternoon/evening, and when you don’t know or remember the name of the person you are addressing.
Salve, vorrei fare un viaggio alla Valle dei Templi ad Agrigento.
Hello, I'd like to take a trip to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
Caption 2, Pianificare - un viaggioPlay Caption
As you go about your day, try imagining how you might greet the people you meet if you were speaking Italian. Keep in mind the hour, and how well you know the person—and, remember, when in doubt, there is always salve!
To learn more:
A detailed explanation of Forms of Address used in Italian can be found here.