Cultural Differences & Adjustment
Table of Content
If you are interested in merging with the community please join our Connecting Cultures Program (conversation partners, volunteering opportunities, Italian families).
For further information please consult the “Activities” portion of our website.
Everyday Interactions & Basic Italian
Communicating with locals can seem like a daunting task. At times, it seems like no one can understand your language, and other times, it feels like the locals will not allow you to practice Italian. The best way to overcome this is to just put yourself out there and try to speak in Italian, no matter how difficult or embarrassing it may feel. Even if you just learn to correctly use a few simple words and phrases, this will help you to assimilate into Italian culture.
Here are a few suggestions and tips that will help you navigate stress free!
Find an Italian friend, teach them your native language and share your culture while you learn more about your host culture – cultural integration is never one-directional!
Take part in the Connecting Cultures program.
Learn about current Italian pop-culture! Try to watch Italian tv shows, talent shows, and listen to current Italian music. This way not only will you improve your Italian language skills: you’ll also increase your understanding of the current trends and lifestyle. This will give you great conversation topics, Italians will be flattered that you actually took the time to learn about their country and you’ll be an instant best friend!
Try the local food. In Italian culture rejecting a dish or ingredient that has been offered could be taken as an offense. At least try the food, or, if you can not, politely explain why rather than just saying “no”.
Keep in mind that Italians, and especially Florentines, despite the stereotype, are very reserved and do not commonly talk to strangers. People might feel uncomfortable or misinterpret your intentions as in Italy it is preferable to be introduced to someone through a third party, like a common friend before starting a conversation. If a stranger approaches you on the street that person is not behaving in accordance with Italian customs and social norms. Do the Italian thing and politely ignore them!
Personal space can be smaller in Italy than other countries.
Be aware of cultural sensitivities. The mafia, Italian politics, World War II, or Italian stereotypes can be a sensitive spot for many Italians and a painful subject. If you do approach these subjects, try to be tactful and not too assertive, as people may feel uncomfortable.
Take advantage of public fountains! You will be able to refill your bottle at water fountains located in the main piazzas, or at the “fontanelli.” Some of them even offer carbonated water! On the other hand, since in italian culture it is not very common to eat or drink outside of meal hours, you will not find water fountains inside buildings.
In Italy it’s forbidden to smoke inside public spaces but it is permitted to smoke everywhere outside. This can be very inconvenient but please keep in mind that an Italian will not perceive smoking next to you in the street as something that might bother you. If you smoke, don’t throw cigarette butts on the street as you may be fined for littering!
People in Italy can be fascinated by other countries, but presenting your way as the best or only way will kill the conversation and the cultural exchange. Italians are generally very critical of their home country but will proudly defend it if feeling judged.
Try unfamiliar things. Life begins outside of our comfort zone! Leaping out of your linguistic and cultural comfort zone can be hugely rewarding!
Italians can be very informal and friendly. That said, Italian culture, despite the stereotype, respects a lot of formalities, for instance:
- Never sit on the ground or put your feet or shoes on a table or a chair/sofa anywhere, including on trains, buses or waiting areas. This is considered very rude!
- It is not really common or socially accepted to eat or drink while entering a store or building with food or open drink containers.
- Keep your shoes and shirt on at all times while in public.
- Italians do not usually wear sports gear outside of the gym or sport sessions.
- “Ciao” is a very informal greeting, not appropriate in every circumstance, especially for the elderly. If you are unsure, “salve” works every time!
- Keep cultural dress norms in mind. Wear sensible clothes and respect the dress code that Italians observe on different occasions. What could be considered casual in your culture could be regarded as inappropriate
- Cover your shoulders and avoid short skirts/shorts when visiting churches.
- Try not to be loud in your native language, despite the cliché, Italians do not appreciate people being loud.
Italians, as a general rule, do not eat out for convenience. Eating out in Italian culture is a treat and is usually done to celebrate some particular event. This is why the dishes in a restaurant are generally richer or more elaborate than average home cooking. Also for this reason, customers are usually expected to order more than one course. The restaurant owner will not rush you out, as the Italian customer is not only paying for food and service, but also for the relaxed time and environment that one finds when eating out. Dinner out is a moment to chat and be convivial, this is why in a restaurant the atmosphere and pace is so relaxed. In general, you will have to ask for the bill in order to receive it, as a good waiter in Italy would never rush you out of the restaurant.
In Italy, there are three basic categories for dining establishments: osteria, trattoria, and ristorante.
Please note that it is always a good idea to check the prices before entering a ristorante, trattoria or osteria; although most of them are reasonably priced, some of them are historical establishments, and their traditional food and rustic environment can be pricey. An osteria or trattoria may have humble origins, but there are also some very fashionable, trendy locations that may outdo the prices of your usual ristorante.
Pizzeria – An establishment selling pizza and sometimes other food. Pizzas are served as individual dishes, not “family style”, and everyone is expected to order their own. If you just want a slice of pizza, look for an establishment that sells pizza “a taglio”.
The Italian “bar” is actually a “café”, where people often stop by for a quick espresso with friends or colleagues. Most bars also sell pastries, sandwiches and sometimes even offer a traditional aperitivo in the late afternoon/early evening.
PLEASE NOTE: many bars require that you pay beforehand and show the receipt to receive service.
Panini in Italy is not a specific type of sandwich or even necessarily a toasted sandwich, it is simply the plural form of the word sandwich, i.e. “sandwiches”. To order a sandwich ask for a panino, singular, not a panini, which is the plural form. Avoid touristy places and go for the lesser- known establishments and bakeries that will prepare a fabulous sandwich on the spot for you!
Aperitivo or aperitif (from the Latin word aperire, to open) traditionally opens a meal, and it is similar to an appetizer. In recent times aperitivo or apericena has become a way to have a quick informal dinner with friends: you can enjoy a beverage and a buffet (cold and hot meals)
Remember: wine is part of a meal in Italian culture and to enjoy one glass with friends is a social activity. However, excessive drinking is anti-social behavior in Italian culture.
Although it may be a nice gesture for exceptional service, tipping is generally not required nor expected for any services in Italy. This includes restaurants, taxis, and hairdressers. Employees in these businesses earn a regular salary and do not work for tips. Furthermore, in restaurants, there is always a service charge automatically included in your bill, called coperto, and usually between 2 to 5 euro. If you did have an exceptional experience and you would like to show your gratitude, usually a euro or two is more than enough to say thank you to your server.
The Myth of Drinking in Public
The heart of social life is often found in piazzas located throughout the various quarters of the city. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find Italians consuming drinks in the vicinity of the pub or restaurant in which it was purchased if there is not a table available at the establishment. However, this is a far cry from the misconception that walking around the city with open containers of alcohol is socially acceptable. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In Florence, as well as in the rest of Italy, consuming alcohol and/or being drunk in public is perceived as extremely disrespectful and it is never, under any circumstance, acceptable to wander the streets with an open bottle of wine or any other alcoholic beverage.
Following is a calendar of our National holidays. Since Italy is a predominantly Catholic country, these holidays are principally in accordance with such customs. Most government and local businesses also acknowledge these holidays. Absence from school for other religious holidays that are not recognized by the Italian calendar will not be excused. This decision does not represent the beliefs of the university or its staff, but rather reflects cultural customs. For current school holidays, please check the Academic Dates for your session which can be found in your orientation packet:
January 1 – New Year’s Day January
6 – Epiphany
Easter Sunday – Easter Monday (date varies according to lunar calendar)
April 25 – Liberation Day
May 1 – Labor Day
June 2 – Day of the Republic
June 24 – Saint John the Baptist Day (Patron Saint of Florence)
August 15 – Assumption Day
November 1 – All Saints’ Day
December 8 – Immaculate Conception Day
December 25 – Christmas Day