“The Trailing Ciao” and other Italian telephone tips.

telephone at Lee Bay NZSpeaking on the phone in another language is difficult. Successfully achieving this step represents a whole new plateau in your language skillz (with a z).

There’s something about being able to watch someone’s lips move that makes the sounds reach your ears faster. Plus, in person, you’ve got facial expressions to help out when you’re not sure if they’re joking or serious.

It’s made even more difficult when the other language is one in which hand gestures not only add to, but sometimes also clarify, a sentiment. When an Italian, for example, exclaims, “O!” on the phone, there is a certain amount that you can gather from tone, sure. You can more or less tell the severity of the situation by the length of time spent on each syllable of the “O”.

You probably thought there was only one syllable in “O”. You’d be wrong there. “Oh” short and sweet = hey, pay attention to me; “O-ooh” = what the hell were you thinking?; “Ooooowwww” = aw, that sucks, dude; and so on.

However, every once in a while, you may find yourself in O-limbo with a particularly nebulous execution of this little vowel. In those cases, a look at the placement of the hands would be super helpful.

One area of Telephone Conversation 101 that I always seem to trip over is at the very beginning:

The phone rings. I pick up.

M: “Pronto.”

?: “Ciao! Sono (insert friend’s name)!”

M: “Ciao, (friend)!”

Then there’s this awkward pause.

M: “… ”

?: “…”

Occasionally I’ll throw out a “Come stai?!” just to keep things moving. The reply will be, “bene, bene, e tu?”. I reply, “bene, grazie”.

We’re back to the pause. I feel like pointing out, “YOU called ME! ”

One time I even said something to the effect of, “Posso aiutarti?” (Can I help you?), and I got laughed at.  A lot.

It took me forever to figure out what exactly we were waiting for there, but I think I may have figured it out. Through careful observation of others (my marito), I have determined that this pause is where I am supposed to say,


I’m supposed to say it without thinking of the translation and feeling like a New Yorker (“tawk to me”). This is difficult, but I suppose I can give it a try. It’s kind of like how all Italians say “permesso” as they enter through your front door, even if you’ve opened it for them and already invited them in. It’ a gateway word. It opens the conversation.


Let’s move on to the end of the conversation. You’ve hashed and rehashed whatever the subject was (probably six times or so, with pros and cons for each way, and all hypotheticals explored). It’s been determined where and when the next meal will take place (the objective or secondary objective of every phone conversation, as far as I can tell). And you’ve reached the end of your time together.

Here’s where there’s another odd thing that happens.

You must talk over each other, with the primary goal of being the last one to say “ciao” before the line disconnects.

I call it The Trailing Ciao.

It’s almost stuttered out, “ci-, cia-, ciao, ciao, ci-, cia-, ciao…”

One person starts the chain reaction, then both chime in with The Trailing Ciao, and it dies out only when both people have disconnected. I’m pretty certain the other person continues to say it for a while after I’ve hung up too.

Who knows how many brutta figuras I made in the first years when I hung up after the first “ciao”, not giving them the opportunity to trail out.

I dread to think.

Have you readers noticed any other peculiar phone habits in Italian (or other languages, for that matter)?

22 thoughts on ““The Trailing Ciao” and other Italian telephone tips.

  1. This was so funny and it brought back so many memories of phone conversations I’ve had in Italy! Haha! I always feel rude saying “dimmi”! It sounds so like “hurry up and tell me why you called cuz I’m busy”! But, oddly, I don’t get offended if someone says it to me, so maybe it’s in the way it’s said. Maybe adding a term of endearment after it will soften it! Hmm… i’ll have to remember to try that…”dimmi cara”!!!! Or is that weird?

    • exactly!! It’s like when they say “guarda” or “ascolta”…It feels like “LISTEN, you’re an idiot.”
      I like the cara suggestion. I’m taking it. 🙂

  2. Russians are totally the opposites of Italians, it seems! During informal calls I almost always get hung up on before I’m expecting it. None of this ci-cia-ciaoooo” stuff. Hi.Plan.Click.

    • true, one of my good friends here is Russian… she’s picked up the Trailing Ciao pretty well, but only does it with Italians, not me.

  3. Love trailing ciaos. What i DONT like are the answering machines at ENEL, TELECOM, ABBANOA, etc, since they speak too fast and one could get quite lost in the fray. AND my peeve too is newscasters. Are they in a race to tell you the news? I mean, is there really a time limit? No time to express whats really happening at a speed I can take. I keep trying though. I also like DIMMITUTTO, : )

    • haha, very true. Sometimes I just let them go for a while… like a long while… just to see when they stop. Then I say something in English, and they don’t know what to do. Kinda fun. (Yes, dimmi tutto is a good one too. Or dimmi pure.)

  4. How I hate it when the phone rings here in Italy! I’m afraid that if I say “Pronto” one of two things will happen: 1. My Irish friends will think I’m being a bit of a poser or gone troppo. 2. Any Italian who phones will think I have a more than basic grasp of the language. So I still stick to Hi and hope for the best!

  5. Hi! You’re so hilarious! I just found your blog and read a ton of your posts in one sitting, laughing like a lunatic by myself. I saw myself in every experience you’ve written about. The trailing ciao has always baffled me. I find myself doing it as well because one ciao just makes me feel uncomfortable now.

    • Thanks, Rachel! I know, once you start, you can’t go back. It now feels really really rude to just say it once and hang up. I found myself doing it to my mom the other day on Skype!

  6. Yes, before the Trailing Ciao (your (c) ) I would also add that at the end of the conversation you must say “va bene” at least four times, possibily indispersed with an “okkei” or two. Advanced users might like to integrate the ‘va bene’/’okkei’ into the Trailing Ciao.

  7. Too true!!! EVERY phone call is like this! I didn’t notice that I had adopted the “dimmi!” and trailing ciao until I was speaking to my mother (who is American) and she firmly responded “CIAO” and hung up to my 56th ciao :))

  8. That’s it!! thank you! It IS The Trailing Ciao. My italian husband has always done that and I never understood! He starts saying it and keeps saying it at least 10 times then hangs up. Thanks again!!

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