Italian Phrases of Greeting and Politeness

Learn how to greet people in Italy during your travels

Friends meeting at a cafe

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If you are planning a trip to Italy and you intend to use some Italian to better get around, function, and fit in, of course, many are the things to learn: how to ask for directions, how to order food, and how to count are all important, indeed.

None, however, may be more important than knowing how to greet the people whose country you are visiting and follow their mores. Knowing how to properly say hello and exchange words of courtesy helps smooth your path and express appreciation and respect: After all, while Italians are fun-loving and relaxed, they are an ancient people with a certain way of doing things.

Here are the main phrases of greeting to help you through your travels.

Greetings

Much like English, Italian offers greetings that are appropriate for different times of the day and different circumstances, both for saying hello and goodbye:

Ciao! Hi! Goodbye!

Ciao, now accepted around the world, means both hello and goodbye. It is the most common and informal greeting used in Italy, but take note of its informality: You don't use it with people you do not know or people with whom you are not in a personal relationship (unless they are children); so you don't say it to the random person on the street, to the head of the police, or the shopkeeper. Or the waiter at the restaurant, for that matter, even if it is a young person. You can use it once you have made friends with somebody. Remember that in Italy there are formal and informal ways of addressing people, and they are more subtle than just verb forms.

Salve! Hello!

Salve is a nice way to say hello, appropriate for acquaintances or to greet someone unknown in a store or on the street. It translates most perfectly to a basic, polite "hello." You mostly use it as a greeting when you arrive, as an opening, rather than when you leave. Indeed, salve is the opening word of many a prayer, including "Salve, Regina" to the Virgin Mary.

Arrivederci! Goodbye!

Arrivederci goes high up on this list because, other than ciao, it is the most common way of saying goodbye when you take leave of a place. While it literally means "to when we see each other again," and it can, depending on the circumstance, mean that you expect to see the person again, it is casually used every day to say goodbye, without any meaning attached. You can use it with people you know, but also when exiting a store or leaving a restaurant or a bank, even though you may never go there again.

Buon Giorno! Good Morning! Good Day!

Buon giorno is the most widely used greeting in the morning, from anyone to anyone. You can use it to greet people you don't know while walking down the street; to greet friends at the bar for coffee; to say hello when you walk into a store (and when you walk out, though when you are leaving you could also use arrivederci).

In most places, you can safely use buon giorno (also spelled buongiorno) up to lunchtime and no later. Up North, it is used more generally; in Centro Italia and in the South, it is used more literally, for the morning only. In Tuscany, where people are most humorously honest, if you say buon giorno in the middle of the afternoon, someone is bound to answer, Chiappalo!, which means, try to catch it—the morning—if you can!

Buon Pomeriggio! Good Afternoon!

You can use this greeting any time in the afternoon. Though it is not used as often as fellow greetings buon giorno, above, and buona sera, below, you can use it with assurance because it is a fine way of saying hello in the afternoon. In fact, it has a certain distinction and elegance to it.

Buona Sera! Good Evening!

Buona sera (also spelled buonasera) is the perfect way to greet someone while you talk a walk (una passeggiata) or go shopping around town any time beginning in the early afternoon (after lunch). If you are taking leave of a place, still in the afternoon, you can also use buona sera, or arrivederci.

Buona Giornata! Buona Serata!

Buona giornata and buona serata are used when you are saying goodbye to someone (in the day or evening) and they (or you) are moving on to other activities and you don't expect to see them again during the course of that day or evening. The difference between giorno and giornata is that the latter (like serata, and like journée and soirée in French) stresses the experience of the day and its happenings, not its mere being as a unit of time. So, when you say buona giornata or buona serata you are wishing someone a good day or a good evening.

Buona Notte! Good Night!

Buona notte (also spelled buonanotte) is both a formal and informal greeting to wish somebody a good night. The words echo through the streets and piazzas of Italy everywhere as people part for the night. It is used only when you or someone else is going home to sleep.

(Note, though: Buona notte is also used as an expression to mean, "yeah, right," or "forget about it" in response to something unlikely (like someone giving you back some money they took from you: Sì, buonanotte!), and also to put an end to something (as the night does). For example, Pago io e buonanotte!: "I pay, and that's the end of it." You might hear arrivederci used in the same way.)

Polite Exchanges

Beyond the greeting, there are a few essential conversational words and expressions you should know to show off your manners:

Piacere! Nice to Meet You!

When you meet someone, or someone meets you, the common thing to say is, Piacere, which expresses your pleasure to meet. A quite formal person, or a gallant man, might answer back, Piacere mio: the pleasure is mine. (Salve is also appropriate when you meet someone, in the place of piacere.)

After the courtesy of piacere or salve, you say your name. You can also say, Mi chiamo (I call myself), followed by your name (the verb chiamare).

It is not uncommon in Italy for people to not introduce themselves (or others, for that matter), so if you want to know what your interlocutor's name is, you might have to ask: Lei come si chiama? if the formal is appropriate (a shopkeeper, for example, a fellow guest at a dinner party, or the waiter at the restaurant), or, Tu come ti chiami? if the informal feels appropriate.

Come Sta? How are you?

Italians, unlike Americans, for example, are not wont to casually ask people how they are as a way of saying hello or as a greeting when they meet you. They ask to know how you really are if they are interested: If they have not seen you in a long time, for example; if something happened since the last time you saw each other.

To ask how someone is, using the verb stare, the informal form of the question is, Come stai? The formal is, Come sta? In the plural, Come state?

Among the options for answering are:

  • Sto bene, grazie! I’m well, thank you.
  • Bene, grazie. Good, thanks.
  • Non c’è male, grazie. Not bad.
  • Così così. So-so.

If you are the one who has been asked how you are, politely you can ask back:

  • E Lei? And you (formal)?
  • E tu? And you (informal)?
  • E voi? And you (plural, formal or informal)?

Come Va? How's it going?

Come va? is another way of asking how someone is. It means, "How are things?" It can be used with anyone, formal or informal. Its depth, casualness, sincerity or formality are established by other more subtle things such as a handshake, a smile, or an earnest look in the eye. Remember, though: in Italy people do not say "how is it going" in passing; it is usually a heartfelt question.

In response, you can say:

  • Bene, grazie. It’s going well, thanks.
  • Tutto a posto, grazie. Everything is going well/as it should.

Per Favore, Grazie, Prego! Please, Thanks, You're Welcome!

Of course, you know that per favore (or per cortesia) means "please." Grazie is, of course, what you say to thank someone for something (it can never be overused), and prego is the answer—you are welcome—or di niente, which means, "Don't mention it." You will also hear prego used when someone invites you into a space such as their home or office, or invites you to be seated, or makes way for you somewhere, for example, to your table in a restaurant. It is a kind nod that indicates a welcome of sorts: "Go ahead," or, "Please, after you."

Permesso? May I?

Speaking of welcomes, if you get invited to someone's house in Italy, when you are entering you say, Permesso? You say it after the door opens, between the hello and the entering, and it means, "Do I have permission to enter?" It is a common word of courtesy to express acknowledgment of the sacredness of the home and the graciousness of being welcomed. Alternatively, you can say, Si può? "May I/we?"

In response, your host will say, Vieni Vieni! Or, Venite! Benvenuti! Come, come! You are welcome!

Remember, if you mess up, it's not a big deal: The sincerity of the effort will be appreciated.

Buon viaggio!