In my Social Psychology course I discuss the concept of social norms. Norms are rules for behavior, some of which are formal and may be integrated into our system of laws (stop at red lights, don’t steal, file your taxes); others are more subtle and are learned by watching the behavior of others around us as we grow and develop (shaking hands when we meet someone, maintaining certain physical distances from other people, holding a door for someone behind us). Adhering to these norms tends to keep us out of trouble and wins the approval of others; deviating from these norms can lead to being punished or socially ridiculed. And while many social norms are universally shared, others tend to be culturally specific. One of the aspects of travel that I find particularly fascinating is being exposed to different sets of social norms depending upon the culture I’m visiting.
In my travels around the world, I have encountered some interesting behavioral norms. When researching a trip to Japan I read that one of the worst social faux pas a visitor to Japan can commit is to blow one’s nose in public. The guide book I was reading stated this quite emphatically, and the author added a second sentence: “Do not blow your nose in public. No, seriously, don’t do this!” Sure enough, in trains and restaurants across the country I listened to people sniffle and snort to the point where I wanted to beg them to blow their noses, but alas, I never saw anyone do so. Another custom in places as diverse as Japan, Scandinavia, Indonesia, Hawaii and some Muslim cultures is removing one’s shoes before entering a home or even certain public buildings. Across Europe it’s customary to greet friends and family with a quick kiss on each cheek, with some exceptions like the Netherlands and Belgium, where they do three kisses, one on each cheek once and then a return to the first. But do your research on the specific country or part of a country you are visiting to avoid embarrassing head collisions! In some countries the kissing starts on the right cheek, while in others it starts with the left. And in Middle Eastern cultures never use the “thumb’s up” sign or sit with your legs crossed in a way that shows someone the soles of our feet; both of these are offensive.
Because I’ve spent more time in Italy than in any other foreign country, I’ve become intimately acquainted with and thoroughly entertained by the many customs that Italians follow, particularly around dining and food. One of the first rules to be aware of in Italy if you’re invited to dinner at someone’s home is to never arrive on time. Yes, you read that correctly. I recall a time when my friend Fabio in Rome invited me to dinner at his place and told me to be there at 7:30. Dutifully, I rang the buzzer at 7:30 on the dot, and then waited a bit for him to answer. When he did speak to me through the intercom, he sounded flustered and confused, but he buzzed me in. When I arrived at the apartment, he had left the door cracked open for me and was madly running around the apartment with a towel around his waist. The first thing he said to me was, “Sorry, I forgot that you’re American!” According to Italian norms, 7:30 really means closer to 8:00. Lesson learned.
Here in the good old USA, any Italian restaurant worth its salt offers diners a basket of bread, bread plates, and a fancy bottle or pitcher of olive oil for dipping. After two or three visits to Italy I realized that I had never seen this custom practiced there, and so I asked my Italian friends whether this was in fact an Italian custom. The answer that I most vividly recall was, “No! E` barbaro!” (It’s barbaric!). I wondered if perhaps this was a custom in one of the country’s diverse regions, but everyone I asked assured me that “No Italian would ever do this!’
In fact, when you are dining out in Italy, you will find that bread plates are not even included in the table setting. One time I was chided by my friend Christian’s mother for balancing a piece of bread on the edge of my dinner plate and he told me that what I was doing was rude. I learned that one simply puts their bread down directly on the table cloth (and you will notice that the table cloths are changed with each new guest in restaurants). You may snack on some bread before your meal arrives, but its primary purpose is to sop up the remainder of a very good pasta sauce.
When I bring students to Italy for study abroad trips, I drill all of this into them, but nevertheless, on one trip, at the very first night’s group dinner, my student Clayton asked our waiter for olive oil and an extra plate. While the waiter went to fetch them, my other students audibly gasped and chided Clayton for doing what I’d told them not to do. Indignantly, he asked our waiter if Italians dip their bread in olive oil. The waiter rolled his eyes and said, “I brought you the oil, because I know Americans like it, but we think it is disgusting!” Just recently my friend Daniele, who works in his family’s restaurant in Rome, came to my table and expressed his exasperation with American and British tourists. “They use half a bottle of oil to dip their bread into. It’s as if they are drinking it! We use a very good olive oil for our guests, but we can’t afford to have people use this much in one meal!” I assured him that I am doing my part to get the message out!
A couple of years ago I went to a trendy pasta and wine bar called Zeb in Florence. Shortly after I’d ordered my meal, a young American couple came in and sat at the bar near me. The waitress brought out a basket of bread and headed back toward the kitchen when the young man called out, “Um, could we get some olive oil, please?” She turned and stared intently at him and seemingly aware something was wrong, he stammered nervously, “You know… for our bread.” The waitress eyed him suspectly and uttered a very definitive “No!” as she continued toward the kitchen. When I finally stopped laughing, I turned to my neighbors and said, “Let me explain what just happened here.”
Another thing to be aware of is that you should not expect “Americanized” Italian food in Italy. Some of your favorite “Italian” dishes may not be Italian at all. Italians do not eat things like fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken is never used in pasta dishes or on a pizza. A Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapples is considered disgusting, and there’s no such thing as a pepperoni pizza. The Italian word peperoni refers to peppers. Garlic bread and mozzarella sticks will also not be found in Italy, and there’s no “Italian dressing” for salads. Also, Italians don’t eat things like eggs or bacon in the morning and they don’t use butter on their bread.
So you like cappuccino? I do too. Italian coffee is delightfully strong and personally I prefer to take it with steamed milk rather than as a shot glass of espresso. But beware: you should only order a cappuccino before noon. To do otherwise will make you an object of ridicule and scorn. At the very least those around you will look at you strangely; at worst, the person behind the counter will refuse to make a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening. I’ll admit that this is an Italian food norm that I have tried to rebel against, as I really don’t like espresso, but conformity is a powerful thing. After a nice dinner in Rome with friends, the waitress came to the table and asked, “Caffe`?” I simply raised my eyebrows in an impish manner and my friend Fabio threw me a look that would scare off a pit-bull and whispered, “I will kill you!” There was no cappuccino for me that night.
At my favorite restaurant in Rome, because I know the staff well, I have said to servers Barbara and Gellion, “I know this is wrong, but could I have a cappuccino?” Barbara shrugged without emotion, but with a demeanor that communicated that she thought I was a major loser, she muttered, “If you pay for it you can have whatever you want.” Gellion didn’t make a big deal about my request, but when he delivered it to me, he leaned in and quietly said to me, “I won’t tell anyone what you have done. I will keep your secret!” When I have asked my friends the reason for this rigid code regarding cappuccino, they all say something vague about it being bad for digestion to have milk after noon, but they cannot explain to me why things like cheese and gelato can be eaten at any time of the day or night. Until I understand the rationale for this rule, I will probably continue to ignore it – but only when I think it’s safe to do so!
Now, picture yourself in Venice having a beautiful platter of linguine with clam sauce placed before you. Your dinner companion is receiving a flurry of freshly grated and fragrant Parmesan cheese on his or her spaghetti Bolognese, causing you to think about how nice it would be to have the waiter add some to your dish too. However, the waiter doesn’t ask if you’d like some and as he starts to leave you consider asking him to come back and top your dish with the cheese as well. I beg of you, don’t go there! Don’t do it! You see, cheese and seafood are not supposed to be eaten together. Period.
Back in my early days of visiting Italy, I did not know this rule and I ordered linguine with clams at lunch with my friends Alessandro and Patrizio. I asked them to pass the Parmesan, and Patrizio’s face became a mask of pure, unadulterated horror. He seemed momentarily speechless, so Alessandro took over and explained the “no cheese on seafood” rule. I pressed him, saying that I love fresh cheese on any pasta dish. He started to hand me the cheese and at that point I thought Patrizio was going to leap across the table and throttle me. In a dramatic scene that could have been out of a movie, Patrizio literally stomped his foot and pleaded, “Alessandro! Please! Tell him! It’s just not right!” You’d have thought he was imploring me not to jump off a bridge, such was the level of his passion. Calmly Alessandro, who was a bit more worldly and well-traveled than Patrizio and therefore, more forgiving of a violation of the norm, said, “Patrizio, it’s his dinner. He can put cheese on his pasta if he wants…” I sighed with relief and started to spoon the Parmesan over my pasta as Alessandro finished his sentence: “…even if it is wrong.” Message received. These days I follow the rules and would never think of adding cheese to my seafood pasta; it’s an easier road to take.
There are many other cultural norms to be found in Italy. Don’t bring someone a bouquet of chrysanthemums – they are only used for funerals. When you’re toasting with a friend you should always make direct eye contact as you clink your glasses and never toast with any other beverage except wine. Never ask for a “doggy bag” or a to-go container in a restaurant; it’s just not done in Italy. The waiter or waitress who doesn’t bring you your bill after you finish your meal is being polite, not rude. In Italy it is customary that you ask for the bill (“il conto, per favore”) when you are ready to go; the server would not want to make you feel pressured to leave. And when you enter and leave someone’s retail shop, it’s considered polite to greet or acknowledge them, and to thank them and say goodbye as you exit.
So whether you’re planning a trip to Italy or to any other country in the world, do a little research on the cultural norms, etiquette or traditions of the places you intend to visit. You will feel more at ease when you’re there and will avoid embarrassing incidents, and the locals will be impressed by the fact that you know and respect some of their traditions.
5 thoughts on “When in Rome… A Look at Cultural Norms in Italy”
Ciao! Sono ancora in Italia, mi piace il cibo italiano, mi piace il languag romantico, anche gli uomini belli. Sono una donna del Messico, che cerca di parlare italiano e di cucinare italiano. Ho preso lezioni italiane e ho visto canale Ria.
We have things in common with the Italian culture. I think, we are the worse, we are always late, drink “late” any time of the day, put anything you want in your Italian meals, salsa, peppers, raw onions, etc. You won’t complain about food in Mexico, the restaurants are open, 24 hours and clubs, until 5am.
Ciao, Hilda! Believe me, I would never complain about the food in Italy. It’s fantastic. .My blog is about the differences in customs between the U.S. and Italy – not a complaint about Italy at all, just observations. Enjoy your time there! I would like to be there now too!
I had wanted to visit Rome ages and finally got my wish a few years back. Getting a taxi from the airport I thought someone had a nasty cold near by me as there was a loud snort right in my ear from them. I thought nothing of it until when admiring some architecture I was surprised as two young men walked past me and each snorted loudly at me. This sort of thing happened frequently, young men especially seemed to be offended by my two stone overweight and would snort like a pig at me. My memories of that beautiful city..not so enjoyable.
Yikes. I am pretty heavy myself, but thankfully have never had such an experience in Rome or anywhere else… except southern California.
As a barbarian from northern Europe, I can’t even begin to understand some of those Italian rules about food. They kind of remind me of an episode of Seinfeld, where there was a certain Middle Eastern looking man with moustache selling soup in a small take away shop.
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