This article is being written by one Italian, me. If you ask 10 more Italians to try and explain who they are, you will get 10 different answers; but then again we do like a good argument over some even better food! I will try and give you some insight into the Italian soul and clarify some common misunderstandings that foreigners have about us.
So what's true in the stereotype?
Stereotypes always tend to have some truth mixed in with a few generalisations and a bit of exaggeration. Let's see what's true in the Italian stereotype.
- Spaghetti and pasta in general are sacred. You cannot take pasta away from an Italian meal otherwise it won't be complete. A typical Italian meal usually includes:
- Starter (primo): pasta
- Main course (secondo): fish or meat with salad
- Fruit or dessert (dolce)
Here we start running into the first problems, there are some big regional differences in Italy, so you might find risotto replacing pasta in some places!
- A good meal should always be shared with someone else. It is a way to share conversation and jokes, forget about work for a couple of hours and enjoy life. Be assured, an Italian will always find the time to eat properly.
- The Mafia is real: we are not proud of it but it does exists, especially in the South and the island of Sicily. Obviously, not every Italian is a Mafioso and most will feel offended and insulted if you use the term, even when if you mean it as a joke.
- Yes, the way we speak is completely original. The most important element of communication are the gestures: the way we move our hands, hold our heads, move our shoulders, our facial expressions, as well as the way we use our eyes and mouths to make ourselves understood. We simply cannot talk without our hands. If they are busy doing something else, we start moving shoulders or other parts of the body for emphasis. Italians speak very loudly in public whether on the bus, in the street or on the phone. Don't worry, we are not all deaf. A lot of foreigners think we are fighting when we talk that way but it's just the way we are.
- We like to travel a lot, but do not speak many foreign languages - maybe because we trust body language more than words.
- Yes we do enjoy romance (just like everyone else - more or less) and maybe the stereotype of the Italian romantic lover is not completely dead. An Italian guy will never let a girl go home unescorted. Also, the macho ideal is still alive and well in Italian culture.
- We are also fashion victims: you can recognise Italians by the way they dress from the head to feet (strictly black Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses; Calvin Klein boxers; Levi's jeans; Gucci handbags; tanned skin all year long; perfect make up). We will dress stylishly for every possible occasion. You won't ever see an Italian wearing sporting short pants combined with long socks: it's simply against our fashion rules (let alone our sense of style)!
- We are chaotic. Nothing in Italy is well organized or easy-to-use. You have to fight to get the smallest scrap of information. Don't be surprised to see Italians fighting to get into the buses or jumping the queue to be served first at the coffee bar. Italy’s slow-moving and stressful bureaucracy has made us more pushy and resourceful.
So, what's wrong with the stereotype?
Italians tend to feel that they are unfairly stereotyped and get offended by how they are perceived by foreigners. The stereotype is actually true but being Italian takes a lot more than that - we are not really pasta and pizza chomping mafiosi.
- We are a generous, sunny and communicative people. We like to smile; we love to talk - preferably over a one or two hour meal followed by a good cup of coffee. This doesn't imply that we don’t take work seriously or that we work less than in other countries. A typical working day in Italy lasts for about 8 hours, from 8/9 a.m. to 5/6 p.m., sometimes until 7 p.m., depending on how many breaks have been taken during
the day. We feel that work is not everything in life, that's why we spend so much time on coffee or cigarette breaks.
- Concerning work, what distinguishes Italians the most from other nationalities is that they tend to take on their first jobs later in life – usually after graduation from university (typically at 23 to 25 years old).
- Italians stay at their parents' home until they have saved up enough money to pay for a flat. This can take a while, which is why many Italians leave their homes when they’re already 30 years old. This, by the way, has earned Italians a reputation of being mummy’s boys – yet another stereotype caused by misunderstanding between cultures.
- Family is the most important thing in our lives and male as well as female roles are based on it. Men should be strong and protective, whereas women should be gentle and feminine. Nevertheless, this does by no means imply that women should stay home taking care of household and children while men are supposed to be the main breadwinners. Lots of Italian women have jobs and are independent as well!
- The country of Italy is made up by many different regions and provinces - each one with its own distinctive dialect, culture and history. Inter-regional relations can be quite tense during election times or even just during local football matches. But we are all totally committed to our national football team (the Squadra Azzurra). When the World Cup is being played, we forget about the differences between the North and the South, Milan and Rome.
We are a strange and wonderful country that is well worth a visit - you may like it or not, but you will definitely be surprised!