Good Morning, Good Afternoon, or Good Evening?

When does bom dia end and boa tarde begin? Depends upon the person and the season.

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As an American, I have never stepped onto an elevator in the United States and said “good morning” to everyone riding in it.  I have also never walked into a waiting room full of strangers and said “good afternoon” to them.  Yet I have been on the receiving end of these greetings many times in Portugal. I occasionally given them now, too.
We Americans are famous (infamous?) for our informality, and, it’s true, the only person I expect to say “good afternoon” to me is Lurch opening the door at the Adam’s Family residence.  I might chirp “morning” to my coworkers when I arrive at the office, but good morning sounds excessively formal, exaggerated even.  Good morning is reserved for 1) feigning enthusiasm to a three-year-old arriving at preschool drop-off who doesn’t want mommy or daddy to leave; 2) annoying your hungover friend who would rather crawl under a rock and die; or 3) impressing a judge in a court of law with your ability to make at least some good decisions.  For everything else, there’s “hi” or “hi, how are you?” if you want to bump it up a notch.
Like many countries around the world, greetings in Portugal tend to be more formal.  (I’ve talked before about how the Portuguese will bend over backwards to avoid saying the word “you,” which for many people here would feel too informal, except among friends.)   For this reason, I would never expect, say, a grocery store cashier or someone working at a government office to say olá to me (hello) unless it was accompanied by bom dia (good morning) or boa tarde (good afternoon), as in olá, bom dia.  In fact, just an olá from a total stranger would strike me as odd in Portugal, even though I wouldn’t be offended by it.
Not too complicated, right? Well….
When is it not morning anymore?  If you’re in a country operating on a 12-hour clock, the answer is simple: morning begins at 12:00 AM (midnight) and afternoon begins at 12:00 PM (noon).  But if you’re in a country operating on a 24-hour clock, which happens to include Portugal and pretty much most of the non-former-British-colony world, there is no such thing as AM and PM.  There’s only 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, and so on.  There’s no hard and fast rule about when the morning ends and the afternoon begins.
Now, many people in Portugal operate under the general principle that afternoon starts at 12:00 PM, but not everybody.  There’s always someone to whom you say boa tarde around 1 o’clock who then responds, in true dad joke fashion, with something like “Good afternoon?  I haven’t eaten lunch yet so it’s still good morning.”  Laughter ensues.  Theirs, anyway. 
When it comes to “good afternoon,” though, it’s a moving target depending upon the season.  In the winter, the pizza delivery guy might say boa tarde to me at 7:00 PM even though it’s been dark for hours because people here generally eat dinner around 8 o’clock at night and I’m a barbarian foreigner eating dinner when the Portuguese are still having afternoon snacks.  That same person might also say boa tarde to me at 8:45 PM in the height of summer when the sun hasn’t set yet but I’m starving and cannot possibly keep up with these Europeans and their sophisticated dining habits. 
Wait, what about boa noite?  Well, boa noite is kind of the red-headed stepchild of Portuguese greetings.  For one thing, you’re less likely to be in a situation at night where a more formal greeting would be expected, so you just don’t hear it as much.  When you do, it’s typically at the end of a get-together, not when you arrive, especially among friends and family.  Then, boa noite takes on more of a “good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” tone of warmth than a frostier, more formal “good evening, ladies and gentlemen, please take this opportunity to turn off your cell phones.”
In Spain, a more informal greeting irrespective of the time of day is just a simple buenas, which can substitute for buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), or buenas noches (good evening).  Some Portuguese have taken to saying only boas, following this same logic, but at least one cultural critic has described the practice disdainfully as “the residue of a greeting” so I’m not confident this one will catch on, even though it would be much more practical.  Spain 1, Portugal 0.
Personally, I often rely on my old fallback of playing the foreigner card and open with “olá, tudo bem?” (hi, how are you?) as much as situationally appropriate to do so.  For the sake of consistency, I figure that since I look like a foreigner, I might as well greet people like one, too. 
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