Italy has a reputation for being a hospitable country and Italians are friendly and accommodating, as well as very used to small talk and interaction with foreigners. Italian society is also much less formal than that of northern European or English-speaking countries, especially in terms of introductions (Italians rarely introduce their friends in a very casual, informal way, so don’t always expect a proper greeting) and dress code. Also, do not expect the average Italian to speak or even understand English, and do not expect those who do to speak English in your presence: you will revert to Italian almost immediately.
However, once a foreigner has a sufficient command of the language, he should begin to use polite language when addressing older people, people outside his circle of friends and any office or shop worker with whom he comes into contact. In fact, the use of familiar verbs and pronouns is quite rare, except among friends, family and sometimes peers. The Italian form of politeness uses the third person singular instead of the second person singular: “Lei” (also the word for “she”, but used for both men and women as a formal way of saying “you”) instead of “tu” (you [familiar]).
Italians greet their family and close friends with two light kisses on the cheek. This also applies to men. To avoid the kiss ending on the lips, note that you move first to the right (you kiss the other person on the left cheek), then to the left. Otherwise, the rules of the handshake are the same as everywhere else in the Western world.
Today’s Italians are no longer the Romeos described in the films of the 1950s.
Every other issue is more or less the same as in other Western countries, without having to do or not do anything special.
Entire essays could be written about the Italians’ relationship with clothing. Three of the most important observations:
- Most Italians (especially young people from the upper and middle classes) are very concerned about their appearance; don’t be surprised or offended if people accuse you of being “eccentric” because you’re not wearing the latest jeans or tailored shoes.
- It is important not to judge people by their choice of clothes. Styles don’t necessarily carry the same connotations in Italy as they do in the UK or some other countries. A woman in high heels, miniskirt and make-up at eight in the morning is probably going to work in a bank. Almost all young people indulge in tight T-shirts and casual knitwear (and are very surprised at the reaction they get when they transfer their sense of style and grooming to a less “sophisticated” climate).
- Sometimes the dress code is written down. If you visit a church or religious site, you should cover up; no bare backs, breasts, shoulders and sometimes knees. Sometimes museums and other attractions can also be strict; for example, no swimming costumes. If you are going to visit a church or religious site, it is advisable to cover up, for example with a jumper or a large scarf. Some churches provide coverings, for example sarongs are given to men in shorts so they can modestly hide their legs. Although there are no written rules, it should be noted that bare breasts and large areas of sunburnt skin are unacceptable outside beaches or tanning areas, regardless of the temperature. It is considered impolite for a man to wear a hat in a Catholic church.
In the recent past, politics was polarised between those who supported Prime Minister Berlusconi and those who opposed him. After the fall of his government in 2011, this polarisation slowly faded. If you make the argument anyway, prepare for a lively debate. Recently, confidence in the political system itself has been waning, leading to a sharp drop in voter turnout (which was traditionally high); it is safe to assume that most Italians talk about politics with despair, if not anger.
Italians are generally modest when it comes to their country’s role in the world. It should be easy to talk to people about history and politics without provoking arguments. People will listen to your opinion politely as long as you express yourself politely. Fascism is outside the mainstream of Italian politics and is sometimes seen as a scourge because of the period of dictatorship (known as ventennio fascista). It is best to avoid such topics. Some older people who lived under Benito Mussolini (the fascist dictator who was killed by the resistance) could easily become angry, either because they had lost someone to the fascist regime – or because they had fought against it – or because they had served in it. There are also young people who support fascist views, and generally these people don’t like to talk about it, so they just avoid the subject. 25 April is “Liberation Day” in Italy, the national celebration of liberation from the Nazi-fascist regime.
On the other hand, communism does not have the same violent meaning for most Italians, although attitudes towards it vary; this is no different from Germany, where Nazism is taboo but the communist regime in the East is not. Moreover, Italy had the largest communist party in the Western world (although it broke with the USSR when it invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and began to abandon Marxism completely in the 1980s); the traditional communist strongholds were the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, where many (especially, but not exclusively, the elderly) still remember the party fondly.
Similarly, the mafia in the South could be a sensitive issue, so it is probably advisable not to talk about it.
LGBT Rights in Italy
In Italy, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can face legal difficulties not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Sexual activity between men and women of the same sex is legal in Italy, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples cannot enjoy the same legal protection as opposite-sex couples.
Italian opinion has changed and people are now more in favour of LGBT rights, but they tend to be more repressive than other European nations. Tolerance of others is part of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which at the same time has a generally negative attitude towards sexual relations between homosexuals. Nevertheless, there is an important liberal tradition, especially in the north and in Rome. Conservative Italian politicians, such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have spoken out against extending gay rights. A Eurobarometer poll published in December 2006 found that 31% of Italians surveyed supported same-sex marriage and 24% recognised the right of same-sex couples to adopt (EU average: 44% and 33% respectively). A 2007 poll found that 45% of respondents were in favour, 47% against and 8% unsure about supporting a civil partnership law for homosexuals.
Although more information is available on websites dedicated to LGBT people, here is a brief summary of the situation: Although violence against openly gay people is uncommon, some Italians still feel disturbed by public displays of affection by same-sex couples and stares are almost guaranteed. Some same-sex couples prefer to avoid public attention. As elsewhere, younger generations tend to be more open-minded than older people, but one should not make assumptions one way or the other.
Italians are very religious (even young people), you have to respect the Catholic traditions, especially in the centre and the south.