Social customs in Italy

Traditions and habits

All countries have peculiar social customs and Italy is no exception. As a foreigner you’ll probably be excused if you accidentally insult your host, but you may not be invited again.

However, Italians are much more formal than most foreigners imagine and newcomers should tread carefully to avoid offending anyone.

Greetings in Italy

When you’re introduced to an Italian, you should say ‘good day’ ( buongiorno) and shake hands (a single pump is enough). ‘Hello’ ( ciao) is used among close friends and young people, but it isn’t considered polite when addressing strangers unless they use it first. Women may find that some men kiss their hand, although this is rare nowadays.

When being introduced to someone in a formal situation, it’s common to say ‘pleased to meet you’ ( molto lieto). When saying goodbye, you should shake hands again. It’s also customary to say ‘good day’ or ‘good evening’ ( buonasera) on entering a small shop, waiting room or lift, and ‘good day’ or ‘goodbye’ ( arriverderci or, when addressing only one person, arrivederla) on leaving (friends say ciao).

Buongiorno becomes buonasera any time after the lunch break (around 1pm), although if you choose buonasera (or buongiorno), don’t be surprised if the response isn’t the same. Good night ( buonanotte) is used when going to bed or leaving a house in the evening.

Titles should generally be used when addressing or writing to people, particularly when the holder is elderly. Dottore is usually used when addressing anyone with a university degree ( dottoressa if it’s a woman) and employees may refer to their boss as director ( direttore) or presidente. Professionals should be addressed by their titles such as professor ( professore), doctor ( dottore), engineer ( ingegnere), lawyer ( avvocato) and architect ( architetto).

If you don’t know someone’s title, you can use signore (for a man) or signora (woman); a young woman may be addressed as signorina, although nowadays all women tend to be addressed as signora.

Kissing in Italy

Italian families and friends usually kiss when they meet, irrespective of their sex. If a lady expects you to kiss her, she offers her cheek. Between members of the opposite sex the ‘kiss’ is deposited high up on the cheek, never on the mouth (except between lovers!) and isn’t usually really a kiss, more a delicate brushing of the cheeks accompanied by kissing noises.

There are usually two kisses – first on the right cheek, then on the left. It’s also common in Italy for male relatives and close male friends to embrace each other.

Lei & Tu

When talking to a stranger, particularly older Italians, you should use the formal form of address ( lei). Don’t use the familiar form ( tu) or call someone by their Christian name until you’re invited to do so. Generally the older or (in a business context) senior person invites the other to use the familiar tu form of address and first names.

The familiar form is used with children, animals and God, but almost never with your elders or work superiors. However, Italians are becoming less formal and younger people often use tu and first names with colleagues. It’s customary to use lei in conversations with shopkeepers, servants, business associates and figures of authority (the local mayor) or those with whom you have a business relationship, e.g. your bank manager, tax officials and policemen.

Invitations

If you’re invited to dinner by an Italian family (a rare honour), you should take along a small present of flowers, pastries or chocolates. Gifts of foreign food or drink aren’t generally well received unless they’re highly prized in Italy such as single malt whisky. Some people say you must never take wine, although this obviously depends on your hosts and how well you know them. If you do bring wine, it’s unlikely to be served with the meal, as the wine will have already been chosen.

Flowers can be tricky, as some people associate them with certain things (e.g. chrysanthemums for cemeteries), but a florist will be able to advise you. It’s common for Italians to send a small note or gift the following day to thank people for their hospitality or kindness.

Italians say ‘good appetite’ ( buon appetito) before starting a meal. If you’re offered a glass of wine, wait until your host has made a toast ( salute!) before drinking. If you aren’t offered another drink, it’s time to go home. You should, however, go easy on the wine and other alcohol, as if you drink to excess you’re unlikely to be invited back! It’s common in Italy to invite people to come after dinner ( dopo cena), e.g. from 9.30pm, for dessert and wine.

Dress code in Italy

Italians dress well and seem to have an inborn sense of elegance and style. Presentation and impression are all-important to Italians and are referred to as bella presenza or bella figura (literally ‘beautiful presentation or figure’). Italians generally dress well and appropriately, tending to be more formal in their attire than most northern Europeans and North Americans.

However, although they rarely loaf around in shorts or jogging pants, they also tend not to go to the other extreme of tuxedos and evening gowns. Italians judge people by their dress, the style and quality being as important as the appropriateness for the occasion. Italians consider bathing costumes, skimpy tops and flip-flops or sandals with no socks strictly for the beach or swimming pool, and not the street, restaurants or shops. (Italians believe that many foreigners are shameless in the way they dress and act in public and have no self respect.)

They also choose the occasions when they wear jeans carefully, as these aren’t thought appropriate for a classy restaurant or church.

Bella figura refers not only to the way you look, but also to the way you act and what you say. It’s similar in some ways to the oriental concept of ‘face’, and Italians must look good and be seen in the best light, always appearing to be in control and not showing ignorance or a lack of savoir-faire. It’s important not to show disrespect or ridicule an Italian, even if it means biting your tongue on occasions.

Other Customs

You should introduce yourself before asking to speak to someone on the telephone. Although the traditional siesta is facing a battle for survival, it isn’t recommended to telephone between 2 and 4pm, when many people have a nap ( pisolino). If you must call between these times, it’s polite to apologise for disturbing the household.

If you have a business appointment with an Italian, he will expect you to be on time, although he will invariably be five or ten minutes late. If you’re going to be more than five minutes late, it’s wise to telephone and apologise. Italians usually exchange business cards ( biglietti de da visita) on business and social occasions.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.

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Other comments

  • Francesca - an Italian!, 17 September 2010 Reply

    Being invited by Italians is SOOO common!

  • Ilaria, 09 December 2010 Reply

    uh... not really :D

    • ss 05 Feb 2012, 10:53

      italians are fun and genuine