Every country has its own culture of social politeness, often a complex system that goes beyond acknowledging another person’s presence to placing people according to their allotment on the social scale – an older teacher, a priest, the white-haired guy who gives out the parking tickets in your small Tuscan town. I’ve been very struck in Italy by how important greetings are, especially seen through the eyes of my children.
We moved here 8 months ago with our Norwegian-reared children. In Norway, one doesn’t always greet an acquaintance when walking past and saying hello and goodbye can be brief exchanges anyway: you can get away with saying hei for either one. Or with just a nod of the head, smiling not essential. (There are also “good morning”s etc and I associate the lovely God Dag (Good day) only with our dear English friend David who, as an actor, could get away with such an extravagant term.)
In Italy, we have found ourselves at the other end of the politeness spectrum. As parents we’ve had to revert to our longer-held education in acknowledgment and greeting. And to try and gently, but firmly, encourage our children to go a bit crazier in the hellos and goodbyes department.
So here’s a little primer on Italy.
Everyone knows Ciao. It’s one word that can mean both hello and goodbye. Very handy, and cute.
However … you won’t get far by saying only that when you greet people, especially if you plan to spend more than a few days in an Italian environement. Ciao is considered casual and it’s generally fine for children to use when addressing the butcher or that white-haired parking guy. But it’s not really appropriate for many daily salutations – and this is a country that takes salutation very seriously.
Salutare of course means “to greet”, both arriving and leaving. Echoing the Salute that Italians say when they give a toast, it nicely encapsulates a sense of health and of respecting the other person.
There are many ways to say hello and goodbye, most of them with the pleasurable sensation of a well-enunciated Italian word. You should try them all out, ideally after you’ve quickly ascertained what your relationship might be to the person: buongiorno (formal, universal) and its variations buonasera, buona mattina, buondì. Salve is a useful in-between for addressing the neighbour-you-haven’t-quite-met. Then there are the goodbyes (which can be long) – arriverderci, arriverderla – and the promises to see each other other again – ci vediamo, a dopo, saluti.
To acknowledge someone’s presence and, conversely, to announce your arrival is very important here. This is a place where human contact is part of everything, and most everything is public.
This need to be acknowledged and always say hello is something I’m still getting used to. In the changing room at the doctor’s office or even the swimming pool, each person entering says Buongiorno, and Arrivederci when leaving. They’re saying it to the room in general, even if it’s full of half-naked strangers who answer dutifully back to the air. (One reason I’m slow to pick up on this habit, apart from the obvious, is that my Italian Rs are still a bit rusty to make my Buongiorno sound properly Italian).
It is impolite to not return someone’s “Buongiorno” or “Arrivederci”, especially for a child. This has been a challenge for our (as previously mentioned) Norwegian children. An entire group of people in the room might stand by the front door, expecting the appropriate response from an adult. Indeed it’s as if everyone is taking on the common cause of guiding this child on the right path to full politeness. Eyes will roll and voices might be raised – “get over there and give that strange man with the bag of sweets a hug (un abbraccio) now!“
Italian culture is renowned for its many subtle complexities of placing people on relevant levels of authority, according to profession, gender, even attitude. In his book, The Italians, John Hooper memorably describes the local barman sizing him up each day depending on his dress and demeanour, addressing him variously as dottore, professore and even capitano. And there is ongoing debate about a woman’s choice to be called a professore and not professoressa, or an avocatessa (lawyer) and not an avvocato.
The two versions of “you” are still very much in use, unlike in English where it went more democratic many years ago. One uses a different form of “you” depending on how well you know the person – lei (formal) and tu (casual) – and people will ask you ci diamo del tu? which means, “are we familiar enough at this stage to stop saying Lei?” Another potential headache, but with a smile we non-native speakers can usually get away with any mistakes.
With such an open culture of greeting amongst strangers, a greeting can quickly turn into a conversation – to me a similar rhythm to the Irish style of chat, but with a more positive and lively feel to it. I regularly find myself in random conversations, nodding enthusiastically to the details of my locker-mate’s tango class or the fellow shopper in the pharmacy, even if I don’t really know what they’re talking about.
And it doesn’t always matter, we’re engaged in human interaction, talking about the joys of life – and in a very simple way, making each other feel more like liked, just through that moment of contact.