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, how you behave in a social setting will affect your overall interactions with other Italians. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be making a great first impression with your new Italian friends and collogues.
Once the Italians accept you into their private lives, you may begin to receive invitations. You may be invited to family dinners, parties, and the like. If you receive an invitation, it is important that you attend if you want to build a personal relationship. If an Italian invites you to a family event, he or she is demonstrating their willingness to get to know and allow you into his or her inner circle. To decline will be seen as a slight. If an Italian invites you to attend a wedding celebrated in a church, it is important to go, even if you are not Catholic. Perhaps the Protestant Henry of Navarre put it best when he was invited to become the king of France on the condition that he convert to Catholicism: “Paris is worth a mass.”
Giving gifts is a common way of showing gratitude and friendship, but in any culture, it is important to know their gift-giving etiquette before deciding on how, when, and what to give as a gift. Italians do not have really strict rules regarding gift-giving, but there are a few guidelines. As the country favors odd numbers over even, if you give multiples of anything, make sure it is an odd number. Flowers are a welcome gift, except for Chrysanthemums. These are reserved for laying on graves at funerals and on All Souls’ Day. Other gifts you should not give include brooches, handkerchiefs, and knives, as these are all associated with sadness or loss. If you want to gift somebody with a wallet, make sure to put inside a coin as sign of good wish to be always full. For the same reason, never give an empty piggy bank as a gift.
Italians love to have conversations but if you truly are the stranger in the conversation, you need to be careful about exactly what you talk about. Italians consider themselves highly cultured people who love to talk about all kinds of different topics. Whether discussing movies, the theater, arts, architecture, or sports, people can have long conversations about almost anything.
There are a couple of topics you should avoid unless you know how to talk about them and you really know the topic well. Most Italians take their sports, especially football very seriously. You should know what teams you are talking about and what they did exactly in their last match if you want to have a real conversation and be taken seriously.
One area that is taken too seriously is local politics. Italians tend to believe it is their right to criticize the Italian government, but they really, really don’t like it when other people do so. Stay away from this topic at all costs, unless you want to get people awfully fired up.
When starting and having conversations, it’s important to note that quite a few people in Italy are far more conservative than you might think. In the Northern regions of the country, it’s considered normal for women to dine alone. In the Southern parts of the country, it’s considered very odd. People will likely come up to a woman who is alone and strike up a conversation simply because they aren’t comfortable seeing a woman alone.