Introduction to Italian culture: Culture Shock

Italian culture is an amazing mix of history, passion, and poetry. It’s been said that French is the language of love, Spanish the language of God, and Italian the language of Poetry. The mixed artistic and cultural heritage created and passed down since the early Roman Empire is nearly unsurpassed in the European theater. Italians as a people in this modern age are a little different than most traveling Americans expect. I’d like to spend this blog doing a brief introduction to my revelations regarding those differences.

Italians are a strong, passionate cultural group with amazing food, great family connection and strong national pride. However, they’ve got a different concept on a few key interactions.

In my travels I’ve found that Italians are much more physically active in conversation and interaction. Hand gestures which are a fully integral part to the Italian language and communication structure are essential to Italian conversation. I often joke with my Italian friends that they couldn’t hold a conversation if they held their hands behind their backs. They’re also more willing to make physical contact and build friendships quickly. This said it is important to note that there is a major difference between northern and southern Italians. Southern Italians are often much easier to build a quick report with, if you’ve got the patience to deal with their passionate attitude of life. Now, by that comment I mean that in conversation and daily interaction even the smallest point of conversation or daily frustration is like the end of the world. It’s a huge disaster regardless of the scale and must to be dealt with immediately. Southern Italians in my experience are also much more touchy-feely. They will quickly accept you and I found that they were generally the group which invited me home for dinner or to meet their families within only a few hours/days of knowing me.

Northern Italians are much more reserved. Again I’ve only had experience with Italians from the larger cities of Northern Italy, and it’s only a generalized perception but, having taken a lesson from their industry they’ve got a more global perspective and have pushed themselves toward a more business class/materialistic/withdrawn attitude. This was especially expressed during my time in Milan. Northern Italians are often colder at first and it takes much more effort to get to know them and be on a friendly basis with them. They were also often more reserved than their southern counterparts. In my opinion, this is in part due to their heritage, influenced by being the major cross roads for Austrian, German, and Asian/Eastern European and French/Spanish markets over the last 3 thousand years and the fact that they are now the financial and business heart of Italy. They are now more exposed to the international market than their southern brethren.

On a note more for travelers, I have often had non-Italian female friends express their shock at Italian men. It is worth mentioning that Italian men are much more forward and thoroughly blunter when it comes to courting a woman. They will often make physical contact -especially if you’ve made eye contact – and can even create threatening situations if they get out of control. In addition given a camera you may find that you’re having your picture taken without your permission. I think that this is in part due to a Media and cultural influence. All their lives they’ve been fed a glorified media image of foreign women being easy, open and accessible, where as Italian women are more reserved and much harder to court. It is my opinion that they have not discovered how to balance the reality and the image. Often it can be overwhelming and can be quite frightening for female travelers to encounter this type of behavior. The key is to be strong and to maintain calm.

Male travelers will encounter a slightly different difficulty. Often times they encounter a much colder welcome from Italian women. Italian women deal with the stronger pursuit from Italian men all their lives. So it takes a lot more effort and a different approach to generate a friendship and or a relationship with a native Italian in Italy. I met my girlfriend through my Internship in Milan (she’s from the south) and luckily had four months of work and social events to get to know her and her friends and date her. This different environment gave me an advantage. However as a traveler in hostels and cities through northern Italy and across eastern and central Europe I discovered that as a male traveling, you need to be careful. Although clubbing culture is becoming more globalized it is still culturally different in each country and province/region, the way you dance and interact on a social level in Italian clubs is much different than here in the U.S. there is a greater emphasis on personal boundaries and space. In addition Italian men, especially family are extremely protective of their sisters/female friends. You can find yourself ostracized very quickly by interacting rudely or without finesse regarding your courtship.

Another bit of shock when encountering the Italian culture is its proclivity to lively argument and prolonged yelling/screaming verbal encounters. I’ve heard countless stories and even encountered it myself. After a long prolonged, loud, and aggravated verbal encounter a non-Italian would escalate the confrontation to a physical encounter. He would be immediately surrounded and prevented from fighting as the Italians, shocked at this behavior reacted in horror, with questions shooting from every side asking if something was wrong – The general response… “of course something is wrong we’ve been arguing for 30 minutes”. This is the best illustration of Italian social interaction I can describe. To them an argument, yelling and screaming is only a part of normal interaction. It’s not a fight, it’s an expression. Only if something truly upsetting occurs can physical confrontation begin. Even then it is still frowned upon.