We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Italy

Italy has a reputation for being a welcoming country and Italians are friendly and courteous, as well as very used to interacting with foreigners. The Italian society is however slightly more formal than the Northern European or English-speaking ones, and it can be more sensitive to issues of respect or lack thereof, so it is wrong to assume everyone will be gregarious and laid-back.

If you are polite and civil you should have no problems, but don’t expect that the average Italian speaks or even understands English (except for young people). Italians greet family and close friends with two light kisses on the cheek. Males do, too. To avoid ending up kissing on the lips note that you first move to the right (kiss the other person on their left cheek) and then to the left. In general, when joining or leaving a group, you will shake hands individually with (or kiss, depending on the level of familiarity) each member of the group. If it is a business related meeting you just shake hands.

italy culture photo

To make friends, it’s a good idea to pay some compliments. Most Italians still live in their town of origin and feel far more strongly about their local area than they do about Italy in general. Tell them how beautiful their town/lake/village/church is and possibly add how much you prefer it to Rome/Milan/other Italian towns.

Residents can be fonts of knowledge regarding their local monuments and history, and a few questions will often produce interesting stories. Clothing Whole essays can be written about the Italians’ relationships with clothes.

Three of the most important observations: Some Italians (especially young ones from the upper and upper-middle social classes) can be very appearance-conscious. It’s important, however, not to judge people by their choice of clothing. Styles do not necessarily carry the same connotations in Italy that they would in Britain or some other countries. Some youths lounge about in skin-tight tee-shirts and casually-knotted knitwear (and are very perplexed by the response they get when they take their sense of style and grooming to a less ‘sophisticated’ climate). Sometimes, clothing rules are written.

To visit a church or religious site you will need to cover yourself up; no bare backs, chests, shoulders and sometimes no knees. Sometimes museums and other attractions can also be strict; no bathing costumes, for example. If you want to visit a church or religious site it’s a good idea to take something to cover yourself up with; for example a jumper or large scarf. Some churches supply cover-ups, such as sarongs are loaned to men with shorts so that they can modestly conceal their legs.

Even where there are no written rules, it’s worth noting that bare chests and large expanses of sunburnt skin are unacceptable away from beaches or sunbathing areas, whatever the temperature is. It’s considered unpolite for a man to wear a hat inside of any Catholic church. Politics Italians are usually modest about 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 in a polite way as long as you express yourself politely. Fascism is out of the mainstream of Italian politics. Despite this, avoid such topics. Some older people who lived under Benito Mussolini (the Fascist dictator who was killed by the Resistance) could easily get upset. April 25 in Italy is the “Liberation Day”, the national celebration of freedom from Nazi-Fascist rule.

You may even find that some people, althought not looking like the typical fascist thug, claim to be supporters of Fascism and Mussolini, this is, as just said, a sensitive topic. In the South mafia could be a sensitive topic, so it is probably wise not to talk about it. GLBT rights in Italy Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) persons in Italy may face legal challenges not experienced by non-GLBT residents.

italy girls photo

Photo by FaceMePLS

Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in Italy, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are not eligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex couples. Italian opinions have changed and people are now more supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) rights, but tend to be more repressive than other European nations.

Tolerance of others is part of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, which, at the same time, preaches against homosexuality. Nevertheless, there is a significant liberal tradition, particularly in the North and in Rome. Conservative Italian politicians such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have expressed opposition to increasing gay rights. A Eurobarometer survey published on December 2006 showed that 31% of Italians surveyed support same-sex marriage and 24% recognise same-sex couple’s right to adopt (EU-wide average 44% and 33%). A recent 2007 poll found 45% support, 47% opposition and 8% unsure on the question of support for a civil partnership law for gays.

While more information can be found on LGBT-specific websites, a brief summary of the situation is as follows: while violence is uncommon against openly gay people, most Italians are still disturbed by public displays of affection from same-sex couples and stares are almost guaranteed; most same-sex couples prefer to avoid public attention. As is the case elsewhere, the younger generations tend to be more open minded than older folks, but assumptions should not be made in either direction.

Patriotism Despite generally accepting criticism, Italians are still a proud people and, when talking about their country’s role in history and politics, it is best to do it with much respect. Under no circumstances you should mock Italy. Follow this rule: it is a good idea not to talk much about Italy’s past politics, since many Italians don’t like Berlusconi nor like the international image he gives to Italy; therefore, never make comparisons between Berlusconi’s policies and Italy itself. Another hot topic are Istria, Dalmatia (and, to a lesser extent, Corsica): until 1947, the former two provinces were part of Italy and many Italians still see them as Italian and could take this topic very seriously.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Italy, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Italy food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Italy and No miss drinks in Italy.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Italy? Please comment below.