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Culture and Society: Greetings and Courtesies


Italian greetings reflect the elegance and passion for which the country is famous. In general, greetings in Italy tend to be formal unless the speakers know each other well. First introductions are accompanied by handshakes, while friends typically greet each other with kisses to both cheeks, starting with the left (to avoid awkward nose-bumping). As two people become better acquainted, hand-shaking is typically abandoned in favor of kissing.

Italians are demonstrative in their affection for each other. Male friends embrace and pat backs in addition to kissing both cheeks as women do, friends often refer to each other as bello or bella (beautiful), and friends, including those of the same gender, often walk arm-in-arm in public.

Informal Greetings

Italians reserve informal greetings for family and friends, and sometimes, especially the younger generations, those of the same cohort or younger than themselves, using the informal pronoun tu (you). Children are spoken to as tu, while one’s elders or anyone unknown to the speaker is referred to with the formal Lei (you).

Italians in informal situations use first names and tu. An Italian greeting a friend will usually use the informal Ciao! (both Hello and Good-bye), followed by Come va? (How goes it?) or Come stai? (How are you?) To this one could reply, Bene, grazie! (Fine, thanks!), Benissimo! (Great!), or Cosi cosi (so-so), and return the question with E tu? (And you?) The neutral greeting Salve (Hello and Good-bye) can also be used in informal situations.

When meeting a group, an Italian will typically greet each person individually, shaking hands and making eye contact with each person. When meeting a group of friends, kisses on both cheeks are exchanged all around. Italians introduce themselves by saying Sono ___ (I am ___), or sometimes Mi chiamo ___ (I am called ___). Introductions are accompanied by a handshake and the word Piacere (Pleasure) or Piacere a conoscerti (It’s a pleasure to meet you). 

When departing an informal gathering, an Italian will say Ciao (Good-bye), Ciao-Ciao (Bye-Bye), A presto (See you soon), or A dopo (See you later).

Formal Greetings

Hierarchy is promoted by the Catholic church in Italy, and this extends to all relationships. It is important to Italians to use language that appropriately recognizes differences in social standing.

Italians address people they don’t know and their elders with the formal Lei (you). Formal greetings are typically accompanied by a handshake for both men and women. Generally once the relationship has progressed into the realms of informality, the person of the higher social position will signal that using the tu form would be acceptable by saying, Dammi del ‘tu’ (literally, Give me the informal ‘you’).

Formal greetings use more polite language, including surnames or titles in addition to Lei. When introducing or greeting someone in a formal situation, an Italian will use either Signore, Signora, or Signorina (Mr., Mrs., or Miss), with or without a surname. Alternatively a person’s title is used in addressing someone, such as Maestro (Teacher), Professore (Professor), or Dottore (Doctor, used for anyone with a graduate degree).

To greet someone or take one's leave in a formal situation, an Italian will say, Buon giorno (Good morning, used anytime prior to early or mid-afternoon), or Buona sera (Good evening, used anytime from mid-afternoon onward). Buona notte (Good night) is used only at the end of an evening when it is assumed everyone will be going to bed.

If an Italian wants to inquire after another person’s well being politely, he or she will ask, Come sta Lei? (How are you?) The possible responses to this question are the same as in the informal, with the exception that returning the inquiry would be E Lei? (And you?) An Italian will express pleasure at meeting someone in a formal situation by saying Piacere a conoscerla (It’s a pleasure to meet you).

Business Greetings

As Italians place much importance upon relationships, they prefer to do business with those they already know. For this reason, it is best to be introduced by a mutual associate. However, if none is available, a cordial Lei permette che mi presenti? (May I introduce myself?) is acceptable.

Business greetings follow the protocol for formal greetings. It is important, just as in formal greetings, to use professional and academic titles in business communications and correspondence. Business cards are exchanged upon introductions, and one looks closely at a counterpart’s card after receiving it as a measure of respect before placing it in a card holder. Foreigners should ensure that one side of their business cards are translated into Italian, taking special care to properly translate their titles, such as Direttore (Manager) or Amministratore Delegato (CEO). Additionally, if one has a graduate degree, it should be included on the card.

Conversation Topics

Italians are forward with their opinions and expect others to be so as well. They value lively conversation, are often uncomfortable with silences, and conflict is common as just another means of communication. As citizens of a country with a rich cultural history, topics of conversation related to Italian art, architecture, music, and opera are always appreciated, as are conversations of Italian cinema and calcio (football/soccer). Italian love to converse on food and wine, especially about regional specialties. Italians are equally curious about the gastronomy and cultures of other countries.


The topic of politics, whether the current events or World War II, is generally avoided in conversation in Italy, as are the Vatican’s affairs and religion, which, like family, are seen as personal. It is considered impolite for an outsider to criticize Italian culture or apparent inefficiency. Questions about the Mafia may be considered rude and ill-informed.

Italians are proud of their regional and national soccer teams and don’t welcome criticism about them. This also is true of their food and wines. It is considered rude to discuss one’s income or private family matters, especially with a recent acquaintance, and stereotyping is equally frowned upon as Italians are proud of their regional differences.

Business cards should not be given in lieu of calling cards, as this is seen as a form of advertising and mixing business with pleasure.