No matter if you have visited Italy many times before or if it’s your first time, it’s always important to know the rules of politeness and remember to use them! Being polite is a norm in any country, but being polite in Italy can help you make friends in seconds. Do you want the best cappuccino in that historical bar in the city center? Be polite—and be polite in Italian—and having your cappuccino will become an experience!
Ciao or Buongiorno?
First of all, let’s say “hello”.
Here in Italy, we usually use “ciao” with people we know or at least we’ve already met before. It is also used predominantly with people of your same age or younger. “Ciao” could be translated as “hi”, so probably it’s not the best way to greet a bank clerk or a sales assistant at a Prada boutique you are meeting for the first time in your life.
That’s why it is always safer to use “buongiorno” (good morning) or “buonasera” (good evening) on your first meeting, in formal contexts, or, as a rule, with people older than you.
We typically say “buongiorno” [bu-on-jor-noh] when we want to greet someone from the morning through early afternoon (4 – 5 p.m.), as the phrase means “good morning” and “good day”. For later hours, it’s more correct to use “buonasera” [bu-ona-se-rah] for “good evening”. You may also sometimes hear people saying “buona giornata” [bu-ona jor-nah-tah] (have a nice day) in the morning and early afternoon or “buon pomeriggio” [bu-on po-meh-ree-joh] (have a nice afternoon), which can be used approximately between 2 and 6 p.m., but it is quite rare as a greeting and is usually used to wish you a pleasant afternoon when you leave. For example, when leaving a shop, a salesperson can say to you “Buona giornata”, “Buongiorno”, “Buonasera” or “Buon pomeriggio”, depending on the hour of the day. Don’t forget to thank him or her with a “Grazie!”.
Never ever forget to use “grazie” [graa-tzee-eh] with a stress on “graa”. It’s not pronounced “gracie”, “grazy” or “grassy”.
Now let’s see how we can be polite when asking for something.
“Per favore” is a phrase that opens every door. “Per favore” [per fa-vo-reh] with the stress on “vo”, means “please” and can go before or after the request.
For example: “Un caffè doppio, per favore.” – A double espresso, please.
Scusa or Scusi?
Generally, when you want to ask a stranger something, you use an “excuse me”, right? In Italy, we use “scusami” (informal) or “mi scusi” (formal) to start a question or to say sorry when, for example, you bump into someone on the street.
For example: “Mi scusi, per la stazione?” – Excuse me, how can I get to the station?”
You can also say “Scusa” or “Scusi”.
Let’s see what you should say when being introduced to a stranger.
A usual dialogue goes like this:
- Ciao. Mi chiamo Alessandro. – Hi. My name is Alessandro.
- Piacere. Sono Paola. – Pleased to meet you. I’m Paola.
“Piacere” [pee-aa-chair-eh] means “pleased to meet you”. You can also hear people saying “Piacere di conoscerti” (informal) or “Piacere di conoscerLa” (formal).
Arrividerci or ArrivederLa ?
How do you say goodbye in Italian? As we have seen above, you can simply say “ciao” when having an informal conversation, or wish a pleasant day with “buona giornata” or “buon pomeriggio”.
Otherwise, you can say “arrividerci” [a-ree-veh-dare-chee], probably one of the most famous Italian words in the world and therefore easy to remember. Sometimes you can also hear people saying “arrividerLa”[a-ree-veh-dare-lah], which is the formal version of “arrividerci”.
Tu o Lei?
As you might have noticed, there can be more ways to say the same phrase.
The reason is that there are different forms of the pronoun “you” (second person singular) in Italian grammar, while in English “you” has a neutral tone and can be both singular and plural. “You” is used to refer to both a schoolboy or an elderly lady living next door (or when you talk to a class of children or a group of elderly ladies).
In Italian, as a rule, when you speak with a friend, a family member, or anyone you have an informal, friendly relationship with, you use the second person singular pronoun “tu”. “Tu” is also fine to you when you refer to a person of your age or younger than you. Sometimes it is acceptable to say “tu” to a stranger when you want to close the distance between the two of you. For example, when a hairdresser uses “tu” when talking to you, he does not mean to offend you, but just wants to be friendly.
-Ciao, Maria! Come stai? – (Maria, hi! How are you?)
-Ciao! Sto bene, e tu? – (Hi! I’m good, what about you?)
Keep in mind that “tu” is generally too informal when addressing someone much older than you or when speaking with a public employee. For such cases, there is the pronoun “Lei”, which is the courteous expression in Italian, used when the situation requires a certain formality or when there is a big age gap between you and the other person. Note that “lei” is also the third person pronoun meaning “she”.
Example (at a restaurant):
- Signora, Lei è pronta per ordinare? – (Signora, are you ready to order?)
- Mi dia ancora qualche minuto, per favore. – (Give me another minute, please.)
Remember that “Lei” in Italian means also “she”.
“Signor Smith, Lei è molto gentile!” – (That’s very kind of you, Signor Smith!)
“Lei è mia sorella Mary.” – (This is my sister Mary.)
When you want to address more than one person you should use “voi”, as it is a plural form for “tu”.
“Signori, voi siete pronti per ordinare?” – (Signori, are you ready to order?)
Finally, a typical dialogue with the rules of politeness we’ve learnt in this article.
“Buongiorno, Signora Bianchi! È bello riverderLa! Come sta?” – (Good morning, Signora Bianchi! Nice to see you again! How are you?)
“Buongiorno, Sarah! Sto bene, e tu come stai?” – (Good morning, Sarah! I’m fine, and you?)
“Tutto bene, grazie!” – (I’m fine, thanks!)
“Scusa, mi fai vedere quella camicia nera in vetrina, per favore?” – (Excuse me, would you please show me that black shirt from the shop window?)
“Certo! Eccola.” – (Of course! Here it is.)
“Bene! La prendo!” – (Great! I’ll take it!)
“Sono 75 euro.” – (It’s 75 euro).
“Perfetto. Grazie!” – (Perfect. Thank you!)
“Grazie a Lei! ArrivederLa e buon pomeriggio!” – (Thank you! Goodbye and have a pleasant afternoon.)
“Altrettanto! Arrivederci!” – (Same to you! See you!)
As you can see, the pronoun is not the only thing that changes here. In English, you say “I say”, “she says” and so on. The same happens in Italian. The form of the verb in Italian always changes according to the subject.
And for now, arrivederci and grazie!
(Note: This article was originally written for Italy Magazine by Pat Eggleton on April 6th, 2010. It has been updated and expanded.)