Impressions of Italy: Culture shock and the lessons I’ve taken from it

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industry they’ve got a more global perspective and have pushed themselves toward a more business class/materialistic/withdrawn attitude.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.


6 responses to “Impressions of Italy: Culture shock and the lessons I’ve taken from it”

  1. Elena Avatar

    I’m from north Italy…when my family, friends and I have a chat with someone else, we don’t yelling and screaming. This passionate attitude is from the south.
    We northern Italians more calm and reserved.

  2. Anna Avatar

    I know you might tihnk I am keeping to stereotypes but I must agree with Elena. We do not yell and scream in public, it is highly frowned upon here in Northern Italy. And I should add that also defending sisters/friends is not so common here. We can take care of ourselves in a common everyday intereaction with men!!

  3. Giovanna Avatar

    I’m a northern Italian woman, I find this article good, so don’t think I’m offended, you mostly know southern Italians though. Northern Italians as an ethnic group don’t exist. The ones you’ve talked to in Milan are very different by the ones you meet in another minor city or a village in Lombardy, in Piedmont, in Veneto and so on. A northern Italian from, say, Aosta Valley, acts different by another northern Italian from Emilia-Romagna. Plus, a lot of Milan inhabitants are children of southern Italian immigrants. In my experience, it’s different to make friends in each northern region. You can’t lebel us. We northern Italians don’t yell or scream, we don’t seem we’re arguing when we’re just talking each other, and other men aren’t extremely protective of their sisters/female friends. I can assure I was with my friends when we met some foreign guys, nobody was extremely protective or jelous to me. Yes, as you’ve said, northern Italy borders central Europe, we aren’t that different by them. I’m a full blooded northern Italian. I will never invite a foreigner at my home, once you got my confidence, you’ll be my friend for life and I’ll do everything to make you happy though. This is me. Ciao!

  4. Viviana Avatar

    A question to Northern Italian women out there: I’m an American women trying to better understand customs here. It is normal to feel like an outsider being in a foreign country, but when I go out, I often feel everyone staring at me. This makes me feel very self-conscious and nervous. I go out and other women my age laugh at me (around 20), and so I’ve adjusted my dressing habits as a result. It’s very hard for me to gain acceptance here, and I was hoping you could give me some direction. I would love to be able to fit in and connect with locals. I’m so afraid that I’m offending people, and it seems no matter what I do, I get judgmental looks everywhere I go.

  5. Francesca Avatar

    You are correct in a sense about the North- South divide
    But I’d say there is also a North-North divide. People from the very northern cities like Milan and Como are more ‘Swiss’ in their behaviour. Much more reserved and not very friendly at times. ( Speaking as someone from there originally). However the Northern cities that are further ‘south’ such as Bologna, Reggio Emilia, even Mantova, tend to be friendlier and more welcoming. The Emilia-Romagna regionin particular is renowned as being very welcoming to foreigners.

  6. Nz8khl Avatar

    Long Live South Italy!!

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