Customs & Traditions in Italy
Updated: Aug 8, 2020
It is common for Italian friends and families to kiss on the cheek when they meet, irrespective of their gender.
Stand up out of respect when an older person enters the room.
It is important to dress neatly and respectfully.
Cover your mouth when yawning or sneezing.
It is impolite to remove one’s shoes in front of others.
Open doors for the elderly.
Men often open doors for women.
Stand to greet any senior person that walks into the room.
Italians are generally quite open and open to constructive criticism. However, don’t let this lead you to think they are immune to an offense.
It is uncommon for Italians to make phone calls between 2 pm and 4 pm since this is when many people have a ‘pisolino’ (nap). If they must call during these hours, they will apologize for disturbing the household.
The family provides both emotional and financial support to its members.
In the north, generally, only the family (2 parents and their children) lives together; while in the south, the extended family often resides together in one house.
Italian families on average have become smaller in size over the past few decades as the fertility rate has declined.
There may also be less contact time with the extended family. But, relationships remain extremely close.
Italian parents generally have a lot of authority over their children throughout their lives.
Most Italians seek freedom and independence, but many stay at home for years into their adulthood.
Indeed, Italians leave their parents’ home at one of the highest ages in Europe. Even when children move away, family ties are still very strong.
In Italian culture, the man is usually the primary income earner. Traditionally, a woman was expected to fulfill the roles of motherhood.
Today, most Italian women receive a high level of education and work to contribute to household income; however, they are still expected to be responsible for the majority of the household duties.
Gender roles may vary between rural and urban areas. For example, those from urban areas or belonging to upper classes are more likely to share responsibilities.
Engagements may happen earlier on in a relationship, couples generally wait until the man has stable employment before marrying. Therefore, engagements between young couples may last for many years.
Marriage is a very respected custom in Italian society,
Wedding ceremonies usually performed at the church of the bride’s hometown. But, civil ceremonies are becoming increasingly common.
Traditionally, the bride and groom are not meant to see each other the day before the wedding.
Italian usually does not have a problem with their children marrying people that are not Italian, but many would still prefer an Italian marriage.
Marrying outside of one’s faith is generally thought to be more difficult if a family is quite religious.
Under Italian law, a couple must be legally separated for six months before a divorce can be granted.
The divorce rate is slowly growing, and the marriage rate is slowly declining as more couples are choosing to live together in de facto relationships (more so in Northern Italy).
Italian names have a surname following the first name, e.g. Alessandro CAPONE (male) and Francesca SORRENTINO (female).
Many Italian names end in a vowel. For men, ‘o’, ‘e’, or ‘i’ are common: e.g. Gianni, Alberto, Dante. Female names commonly end in ‘a’ or ‘e’: e.g. Sofia.
Many people are named after their grandparents; however, parents are increasingly choosing new names for their children.
Traditionally, most Italians had a name that corresponded to a saint.
Meeting & Greeting:
Italian greetings are usually warm and rather formal.
The common greeting is a handshake with direct eye contact and a smile.
It is common to give air kisses on both cheeks (starting with your left) when greeting friends and family. This is called the ‘il bacetto’. However, in Southern Italy, men generally only kiss family members and prefer to give a pat on the back to show affection in a greeting.
If the greeting is between a man and a woman, the woman generally extends her hand first.
People avoid shaking hands over the top of other people’s hands.
If someone has dirty or wet hands, they may apologize and simply nod.
Address a person by their title and last name, and continue to do so until invited to move to a first-name basis.
Older Italians prefer to be addressed in the polite form, using titles such as “Signore” (Mister) and “Signora” (Missus).
Italians are guided by first impressions, so it is important that you show modesty and respect when greeting people, especially when meeting them for the first time.
The common verbal greeting is “Ciao” (Hello). This is quite casual. People may also say “Buongiorno” (Good day) or “Buonasera” (Good afternoon) to be more formal.
It is common to visit friends, especially on Sundays and holidays.
Italians from villages may visit each other unannounced; however, in the cities, people plan most social engagements to fit within schedules.
Punctuality is not mandatory.
Dinner guests often bring a gift of wine, chocolates, or flowers.
Offering compliments about the host’s home or provided meals is a good way to break the ice.
Typically, elders enter a room first.
It is common for men to stand when a woman first enters a room. This is the same for children when an adult first enters a room.
If you are visiting somebody’s house just before dinner time, it is expected you will stay for the meal.
Make sure to compliment the cleanliness and decor of someone’s home. Italian women often take great pride in the appearance of their houses.
Gifts are usually opened when received.
Gifts are often open in front of the giver when received.
It is common for Italians to wrap gifts in decorative and beautiful wrapping. However, avoid wrapping a gift in black or purple, these colors symbolize mourning, grief, and bad luck respectively.
Do not wrap gifts in purple, as it is a symbol of bad luck.
Avoid giving knives or scissors as gifts as these considered bad luck.
Take care to remove or cover the sticker price.
If giving flowers, be aware that the daisy flower is used at funerals. Yellow flowers can indicate jealousy whilst red flowers may indicate love, passion, or secrecy.
If you bring wine, make sure it is a good wine. Quality, rather than quantity, is important.
With the exception of alcohol, giving specialty foods from one’s country may not be well received by your Italian counterpart.
Dining & Food:
The table manners are continental: The fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.
If invited to dinner you can late for 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes late if invited to a party.
Remain standing until invited to sit down. You may be shown to a particular seat.
Follow the lead of the hostess, she sits at the table first, starts eating first, and is the first to get up at the end of the meal.
The host gives the first toast. An honored guest should return the toast later in the meal. Women may offer a toast as well.
Guests are invited to start eating when the host or head of the table says “Buon appetito” (Enjoy your meal).
If there is bread on the table, try not to eat from it before the main course begins, you can use it to absorb the sauce at the end of the meal.
Always take a small amount at first so you can be able to accept a second helping.
It is acceptable to leave a small amount of food on your plate.
Pick up the cheese with your knife rather than your fingers.
Do not leave the table until everyone has finished eating.
Drinking beverages other than water or wine with a meal is quite uncommon.
If you do not want more wine, leave your wine glass nearly full.
Guests are not expected to help the host clean up after a meal.
It is inappropriate to stretch one's arm or resting elbows on the table.
It is generally impolite to eat whilst walking.
Outdoor dining is very popular in the summer months.
If the invitation says "dress is informal", you can wear stylish clothes that are still slightly formal, i.e., jacket and tie for men and an elegant dress for women.
Breakfast is not a big meal in Italian culture and is sometimes skipped.
Italians are typically direct communicators. They tend to be open about their emotions and speak clearly about their point.
Italians are generally quite open, curious, and bold. Expect to be asked a lot about your life story and background.
You may find that they are eager to give their opinions or advice on your activity. For example, they may point out an error in the organization of your home and give you a tip on how to correct it.
Avoid ignoring them or shutting down their questions and comments as this may lead them to see you as closed off or overly sensitive.
Italians can become uncomfortable with long periods of silence and may naturally speak to fill it.
Italians may speak in loud voices to make themselves heard over one another. A raised voice is not necessarily a sign of anger but can be an expression of excitement or opinion.
Consider that some Italians may find online communication to be an impersonal form of interaction in a relationship.
Italians generally keep a close distance less than a meter away from the person they are talking to, if you move farther away from them they may think you are avoiding them.
Italians are generally emotional people, it is common to see hugging, kissing, back-slapping, and hand-holding in public. People may touch their conversation partners to show their engagement in the discussion.
Direct eye contact is held during conversations. In some places in Italy, people may inadvertently stare out of curiosity. However, be aware that staring is generally considered rude especially if a person of low social status stares at someone higher than them.
Italians are naturally more expressive in their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, often motioning with their hands to emphasize their point.
To rub one’s thumb against the fingers indicates money. People may acknowledge the cleverness of another person by pulling down the bottom eyelid with a finger. People can gesture “no” by jerking their head upwards this can look similar to a nod.
Italians start counting with their thumb instead of their index finger. The thumb represents 1, and so on.
Italians much prefer face-to-face contact.
Networking can be an almost full-time occupation in Italy. Personal contacts allow people to get ahead.
You are not expected to tip restaurants in Italy.
A service charge is sometimes added to the bill, ranging from 1 to 3 Euros, or 10% - 15%, This charge must be indicated on the menu.
Some may also add an extra charge for the diner ware and extras (tablecloth, silverware, plates, bread, etc.), this is normal.
Do not criticize Italian food or suggest ways it could be changed for improvement. Italians are deeply proud of their cuisine.
Also avoid criticizing the Italian culture, people, or nation. Though many Italians openly complain about their country or current politicians, they are still very proud of their homeland (Patriot) and its cultural contributions to the world. Foreign criticism is unlikely to be appreciated.
Do not assume all countries in the Mediterranean are the same. They may share cultural similarities, such as a strong family focus, but Italy is very different from neighboring countries.
Avoid making generalized comments about Italian crime, corruption, the Mafia, or Italy’s involvement in World War II.
Do not joke about the Catholic Church or the Pope when in the company of older Italians. The younger generations are often quite relaxed about these topics and open to deprecating humor, but it can seriously offend the elderly.
Avoid drawing on stereotypical ideas of Italian culture when making conversation.