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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in Italy

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: October 2014

Stereotypical views of Italians include that they are amiable, gregarious, fashionable, fun-loving, passionate and easy-going, but also quixotic, noisy, undisciplined and petulant. All of these are undoubtedly true in some cases, however, as with any country, there is a wide variety of Italian personalities, and such generalisations can be unhelpful.

Though the influence of the modern media has provided a degree of national unity, Italy is still a patchwork quilt of a country. It is a nation of regions first and a country second; national fervour is mostly reserved for sporting occasions. Each region has its own cultural characteristics, and to locals, being a Roman, Venetian or Neapolitan is more important that being Italian. In fact, the strong sense of local identity goes to an even smaller scale than that, all the way to civic level, where it is known as campanilismo: loyalty to the area within earshot of your local belltower.

The most profound cultural differences are between north and south, with the central area sharing some characteristics of both. Northern Italians are more in a rush and are much more business-orientated in their dealings with people and their way of life. The North is the main industrial area and is a great deal wealthier than the South. Northern Italians have a more international outlook and tend to be more open to new ideas. Even their eating habits are more in tune with a ‘fast life’: their meals are lighter, and they spend less time over them, especially lunch.

Meanwile, down in the Mezzogiorno (the South, literally ‘midday’), meanwhile, no-one is in any particular hurry. Southern Italians love to talk, to each other and to strangers alike, and will spend a lot of time doing so. They are by and large friendly and helpful to foreigners, and more welcoming than their Northern counterparts. South Italians are more traditional, are more likely to work in agriculture, and are more likely to assert their employment rights by striking. The southern tip of Italy and Sicily are, also blighted by the mafia.

In general, Italian people are very sociable. They consider family ties so important that they often put the interests of the wider family before the needs and wants of an individual. Nevertheless, the younger generations are not normally as family-orientated as their parents and grandparents. The Italians are a demonstrative and tactile people; body language is an important means of expression.

On entering an Italian house, you will be offered food and drink. Pasta is eaten in all regions, though favoured types and accompaniments vary widely. When it comes to children, Italians do not have the attitude that children should be seen but not heard. It is common for kids to be allowed to stay up late into the evening, actively joining in with family celebrations and the local festivals when in other cultures the youngsters would be tucked up in bed.

Greetings between Italians always involve a handshake between men and often women tend to kiss each other on the cheek when saying hello. Friendly slaps on the back can frequently be observed when men greet each other.

The Italians are justifiably proud of their contribution to world cuisine, and are well aware of the care and attention that good cooking requires. In 1999, the existing Slow Food movement in Italy (formed in reaction to the US-driven rise of fast food) expanded into the Slow City movement, known in Italian as Cittàslow. Subscribing towns aim to preserve a less hectic pace of life – traffic is calmed, and noise and global brands are discouraged. These cities have managed to stem the flow of Americanisation, rejecting commercialism and the ‘time is money’ ethos that goes with it.

 

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