In an attempt to better understand Italy, today’s culture clue is an overview of some of Italian culture’s more famous features. Of course I begin with the usual caution and caveats, as there is no “typical Italian” so much as there are overall tendencies in a culture. Understanding some of these unspoken attitudes and common prespectives may help you understand and appreciate your experience, on your next Italian Untour, as visitors in their country.
One thing that I am struck by on my visits is an openness and honesty I get from Italians, especially as I get to know them. I remember returning to Italy with my husband, about a half a year after our wedding. A friend who hadn’t seen him in a couple years said, “Randy, marriage agrees with you! You’ve put on weight. You look good. You look happy.” Imagine! But when I related the story to others they agreed. This is not bad manners. It was true after all, and meant with affection. I reframe it as a testament to our closeness. The candor is refreshing.
Beauty is prized in Italy, but it is broadly defined and used as a basic complement in many arenas. “Prendiamo un bell’caffe.” (Let’s have a nice coffee, but literally translated, a beautiful coffee.) “Ciao, bella” is a common greeting used liberally: Hi, beautiful! A straight man will have no qualms about calling another man handsome, un bell’uomo. And frankly, with those well polished shoes and expertly cut jacket, he is! Appearance matters to young and old, and in all realms. Buy a box of chocolates in a small shop, and the cashier will wrap it for you in an elaborate and lovely way. Wait patiently, because life is in the beautiful details here.
Enter the subject of the Italian sense of time, which is not as simple as many think. The trains do generally run on time, though not with Swiss precision. Italians drive fast. People show up on time for appointments, and in an office setting you can expect the usual hours, perhaps with just a slightly later start and close to the work day. The siesta closure is in play for many small shops, museums, churches and banks. But a business person is much more likely to eat a panino standing at a bar than to head home for a family lunch.
But time slows down for food. A friend once commented that perhaps the Italians drive so fast to make up for all the time they spend around the table. Italy is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, and a focus on fresh local ingredients and traditional preparation is a hallmark of Italian cooking. Young and old honor this, even as prepared and processed convenience foods proliferate here as elsewhere. While mealtimes are unrushed, do not expect that three or four full courses are the daily norm. This is more for special meals out or Sunday lunch with family. It is the time around the table that matters.
Sociologically speaking, the Italian culture is more group oriented than individualist. Look to fashion, community involvement, and a certain level of conformity in social convention and trend following to see how this plays out in the culture. One example, and one thing that always mystifies me when I visit a small town Sagra or village festival in Italy, is the number of enthusiastic teenagers participating. I think of American teens as too busy asserting their independence, too cool to be involved in something that traditional. Sure Italian teens rebel too, but many will dress up in tights and crowns to participate in the festa, and appear to have a great time doing it. Next time you’re taking in a local festival, don’t be too surprised that some of the characters are played by the town youth. A medieval princess with a nose ring, perhaps?.