Having lived in Italy for a little over a year when I was in college, I picked up on a few differences in social norms between Americans and Italians that were surprising. Some I was told about beforehand, some I learned as I went. After a few months, I started to recognize certain tourist behaviors I wouldn’t have acknowledged before and suddenly understood why they were irritating to Italians.
Italy is one of the most interesting countries to visit due to its rich history and culture, with countless places to see and experiences to have. An important aspect of traveling is being culturally sensitive to each country you visit to ensure you’re being respectful to the locals. All the points below are only meant to be informative so you are aware of a few of these societal differences, but the choice in how to act is yours!
Here are a few small things to avoid doing in Italy to help you adapt to their lifestyle while you’re there and make your trip as seamless as possible.
Don’t ask for a cappuccino after 10am. Italians are all about digestion. If you order water, it will almost be sparkling every time (unless you specifically ask for still) because they believe it helps your stomach break down food the better. They don’t feel a need to diet as long as they eat “correctly,” minding what is consumed and when. Now about the cappuccino – it’s only acceptable at breakfast. The milk itself is considered heavy enough to make this drink a meal and is usually only paired with a light pastry, if anything at all. You’ll then have the rest of the day to burn off the calories.
If you order a cappuccino at lunch, or dinner if you’re a risk-taker, you’re bound to get some disapproving looks, condemning head nods, or a few smirks in disbelief. Consuming milk later in the day is thought to completely disrupt digestion and is a huge no-no for Italians. I’ve seen a few waiters politely turn down a tourist’s request for a cappuccino in the afternoon, so keep it solely a morning beverage if you don’t want the scrutiny.
If you’re already crossing the street, don’t stop walking. Highly populated Italian cities have super busy, narrow and crowded streets. There are people, cars, buses, motorcycles, bikes and vespas going in every direction. Amidst all the apparent chaos, Italians are adapted to it and know how to navigate themselves. In the US, we’re accustomed to crosswalks giving us the green light so know when to walk, and sometimes we don’t even look to see if cars actually will stop. We expect them to.
Definitely not the case in Italy – pedestrians don’t have the right of way. Watch out before crossing any street; they most likely won’t stop for you. Of course all major intersections have traffic lights and crosswalks for pedestrians, but there are hundreds of smaller streets and alleys throughout major cities that aren’t large enough for a crosswalk or even a stop sign. If you start to cross the street, keep going. Even if you see a vespa coming your way. The driver is used to zipping around people and will anticipate your continued path if you keep walking. If you stop, you might throw him or her off and possibly get slammed by a vespa. Not a good story to bring home.
Obviously be cautious and keep an eye out in case they don’t see you so you can jump out of the way if necessary (accidents DO happen), but keep this in mind.
Don’t ask to take home leftovers. Italians take great pride in their cuisine, boasting it as the best in the world; if you’ve ever been to Italy, you might not be able to refute that. Part of experiencing the art of Italian cooking is to enjoy it exactly how the chef intended: immediately after it’s prepared, not mixed together with other courses, and not at different temperatures (no cold pizza). As a result, asking to take your food home means you’re not appreciating the meal as it was intended (an abomination!). The thought of a famed chef’s masterpiece in the microwave might be enough to put him over the edge.
Additionally, meal portions are smaller in Europe so you really shouldn’t need to take anything home. A normal dinner will usually consist of an antipasto (appetizer), primo (first dish), secondo (second/side dish) and dolce (dessert), with none of these portions being gigantic. Since each course comes out separately, you’ll eat at a slower pace and feel full quicker, which helps prevent overeating. While it’s still pretty customary for restaurants to decline doggy bag requests, it should also be noted that some non-profit groups are attempting to break this social rule and save uneaten food for the homeless.
Don’t wear shorts or have exposed shoulders in churches. You don’t see too much conservatism these days when it comes to clothing. Shorts, short skirts or dress, sleeveless shirts and strapless dresses are everywhere. This isn’t any different in Italy – you’ll see Italian women wearing all of the above. However, it’s still expected that when visiting churches or cathedrals, people cover up out of respect. Many of these churches won’t even allow entry if you’re wearing a tank top or if your dress is too short. Play it safe and bring something you can cover up your shoulders with (like a scarf) or a lightweight skirt you can quickly change into. I know it sounds like a bit of a hassle to plan for, but at least you won’t be denied entry at the Vatican.
A few last pointers…
Don’t speak super loudly in English, especially in closed spaces like a public bus. Italians (and most other Europeans) think it can be obnoxious and rude, depending on the situation. Tourists can come off as inconsiderate and in their own world, especially if everyone else is speaking quietly. Be mindful of your surroundings. While you’re at it, try to learn at least a few basic Italian phrases instead of immediately speaking English to strangers. They’ll be more receptive and willing to help you if you show courtesy.
Do NOT ask about the mafia. While Hollywood has glamorized the mafia and made the rest of the world curious and fascinated by it, the mafia is a serious and sensitive subject for Italians. It is still a problem for the country, especially in the south, causing many deaths every year. People get freaked out even if you just joke about it – steer clear and avoid the subject altogether.
Don’t feel obligated to leave tips. Leaving tips is not customary in Italy but of course waiters know that Americans tip for everything. If you feel like you got amazing service and want to leave a tip, go for it, but don’t worry that you’ll come across as cheap if you decide not to. Most restaurants charge “coperto” anyway, which is usually about 2-3 Euro and is a service or cover charge for your table. I should probably also point out that the bread on the table you receive before your meal isn’t free like it is in the US, so if you don’t want to pay for it, don’t eat it.
Don’t touch the produce at the supermarket with your bare hands. They think it’s gross. There are usually plastic gloves you can put on before handling fresh produce. Use them to avoid getting dirty looks or a scolding from the grocer.
Don’t ask for mac and cheese. They don’t know what it is and for the ones that do, they think it tastes like plastic. Just trust their advice when it comes to meal suggestions if you need them!
Italian culture is rich in history, the food is some of the best in the world, and it’s full of interesting people. You can literally visit the same city more than once and have a different experience every time. It’s one of those places that will leave an impact on you for years to come – return the favor and leave Italy with a positive first impression as well.