Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Italy is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Italian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, forming Italian friendships can be a daunting task, but once created, they last a lifetime.
While it is easy to meet and get acquainted with Italians, joining their inner circles is not so easy. Italians form and maintain close ties with their local and regional cultures. They often establish their close friendships at a young age and maintain those friendships for the rest of their lives. They are not often prone to let an outsider into their close-knit group of friends. This is not out of rudeness; rather they think that everyone has their own circle. It may be difficult for a newcomer to quickly fit into a group of people who have known each other their entire lives.
The larger cities are more cosmopolitan and thus are not a closely-knit as the smaller towns or villages. If you are visiting a smaller region, the people will be friendly, but you may find it more difficult to make close friends, especially in a short period of time. For example, the author Tim Parks wrote a book titled Italian Neighboursabout his and his Italian wife Rosa’s experience moving to a small village outside of Verona. He gives advice for fitting in to the local culture. Even before he made friends, he paid regular visits to the local bar. He also discusses the importance of timing: you should know when to order a “cappuccino” (before 10:30 AM) and when to order a “digestive.” Acting like a local will help to gain you acceptance. Bars are also required to provide local newspapers, which can be a great way to learn more about the local culture.
Eventually, you will start to make some headway into the regional Italian community. You will get familiar with the residents. If someone figures out you are a native English speaker, they may ask you to translate something for them. When you first meet your Italian neighbors, they will be courteous and hospitable, but they likely will not treat you the way they would a close friend or family member. It takes time for people in the Italian culture to welcome you into their more private groups and settings.
Making yourself useful bydoing favors for the people who live around you; this can help you get to know them better and make them more receptive to letting you in. However, be careful of invading another’s privacy. Like many other cultures, the Italian’s are very private and consider their homes to be a private space.
Despite their need for privacy, Italians are often very willing to discuss any health-related issues. They will sometimes discuss the results of their latest doctor’s appointment with even a casual acquaintance.
Italians are interested in the world outside of their own country, but consider their culture and people to be the best. Italians are loyal first to their region and second to their country. Thus, Italians who are from a different region are afforded the same polite hospitality as a foreigner.
One of the best ways to make a connection with an Italian is through family. Having a family shows that you are responsible and worthy of trust.
Italians also have relationships based on gender. In his book The Italians, Luigi Barzini says that Italy is what is called a crypto-matriarchy. This term means that on the surface, Italy is run by men, but the men are actually ruled by women. Women have power through seduction. Italian women are beautiful, poised, and well spoken. In public, they appear to be subordinate to men. Take the case of June Collins, a young woman from Edinburgh who was working in Italy as a teacher. She wanted to make friends with her female colleagues, but found them to be reticent. Being from Scotland, June was used to treating men as her equals, whereas her female colleagues often behaved in a more submissive manner when around men.
For Italians, the family is the source of all loyalty and power. One’s family has a greater hold over them than anything else. Luigi Barzini even says that, “Family loyalty is the Italians’ true patriotism.” Italians exhibit different behaviors based on their setting. For example, if you make an Italian friend at work, he or she may be very polite and respectful, maybe even a bit aloof at work. Yet if you visit that same friend at home, he or she may be much more relaxed, casual, and friendly. For foreigners, this behavior may be off-putting or even seem deceitful, but the Italians do not see it this way. For Italians, the business and the home are two completely different worlds and you are expected to behave as such.
Italian people make friendships for life and they expect their friends to have a committed relationship. You are expected to put in effort to maintain a friendship. Once you make Italian friends, you will be invited to all manner of gatherings – family dinners, weddings, birthday parties, and even funerals. These invitations are not casual mentions. If you are invited, you are expected to attend. That is part of building a lasting friendship in Italy. When you are invited to someone’s event, they will be hurt if you do not show up. This mentality is very different from people in England or America, who can go months without seeing a friend and then pick up right where they left off. To the Italians, friends do not come and go in and out of each other’s lives. Once you make a friend, they are a constant.
For Italians, friendship is everything. Your groups of friends can be a great support system for you, but at times their expectations can be a bit much. Political philosopher Antonio Gramsci once wrote, “Rather than joining political parties and trade unions, Italians prefer joining organizations of a different type, like cliques, gangs, camorras, and mafias.”
When it comes to Italian friendships, you are expected to maintain a constant relationship. You cannot contact your friends only when it suits you. You are expectedto be there for your friends at all times and see them frequently.
In the mind of the average Italian, loyalty can often hold extreme precedence over most other highly regarded sentiments, morals, and values. A distinguishable trait held by the average Italian, particularly when compared to other nationalities, is their staunch adherence to personal loyalty and friendship, and it is mostly viewed as a universal sentiment. This strict adherence to the ethics of friendship and personal loyalty will often be placed above their commitments to the state, as well as state-instituted laws and regulations. Community and loyalty to it are consistently adhered to, even when this stance places an Italian in direct opposition to the state.
Italy can be accurately characterized as a country rife with contrasts. Many Italians have looked critically at the processes historically associated with the bureaucracy and recognize a need for immediate change regarding protocol that has traditionally been implemented on citizens. From the viewpoint of the average Italian citizen, changes that need to be enacted should address the relationship-based society. Italy has traditionally been very inward-looking and based on privilege and friendship, with an egalitarian society in which access to quality employment and the reform toward labor laws and taxation that will make this plausible. As Italy is still regarded by many Italians as “il bel paese” (the beautiful country), they wish to achieve this without sacrificing their quality of life. Nor are they willing to lose the liberality and openness commonly associated with the local communities. These has been a long-brewing sentiments and goals amongst Italians.
In Italy, it is all about who you know. If you want to get something done, especially in business, you will have the most success with a “raccomandazione” (recommendation). If someone can introduce you to someone, the person you are introduced to will be much more willing to work with you. However, once you have a “raccomandazione” it is up to you to impress with your other skills to gain that person’s trust. The “raccomandazione” is important in getting your foot in the door, though, so it is important to make many acquaintances.
It is also important to maintain your relationships with other Italians. Once you make a friend, you are expected to keep in touch with him or her, not only when you need something. Italians expect to help you when needed, but they expect you to do favors in turn. You should not treat a relationship as a casual thing. When an Italian accepts you as a friend, he or she is accepting you into his or her family and community. To only call on a friend when you need him or her is considered very bad form.
In Italy, the people have closer ties with their local community or region than with the country as a whole. Italians often have what is known as “campanilismo,” which indicates a strong attachment for one’s own local area. They often view the larger government as an outsider who does not have their local interests at heart. Thus, an Italian’s relationship with his or her local region is much more important than their relationship to their nation.