Italy cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
To begin with, a first contact may be made easier by bringing up general topics such as where the other person is from, while trying to introduce positive elements (e.g., if the person is from southern Italy, emphasising the good weather and the quality of the olive oil and red wine, whereas if he is from the north, stressing the economic wealth brought by small and medium businesses). Moreover, the discussion could revolve about work (e.g., the workplace, position) or the members of the family (e.g., the spouse, children).
On the other hand, in order to make a good impression during a first contact, it is important to highlight the positive aspect of Italy’s image, that is, that which makes up the traditional and popular culture. The dialogue should be connected to Italy’s image abroad, such as fine cuisine, luxury products, historical heritage, and the realms of sports and cinema.
There are problematic topics that should generally be avoided, especially during a first contact. This concerns themes upon which not everyone agrees, and which may therefore make a conversation more strained. As an example, politics (along with the different issues involved) is a subject that could make a first contact uncomfortable.
In Italy, the use of humour is a fairly common means of breaking the ice. Yet, it must be used with care. Misunderstandings and confusion may be frequent if there is not good communication (i.e., linguistic comprehension) between the Italian and the Canadian.
Italians are usually happy to be engaged in small talk about weather/artwork and conversations focused on complimenting their region/country. Family and work are generally safe topics for conversation although they don’t take it lightly when foreigners are critical of their surroundings. If you want to avoid confrontation don’t discuss political views. If you’re not very well versed in either politics or religion, avoid the subjects at all costs. They get really worked up over these subjects and it is a source of passion. However, in northern Italy you might find political discussions evoke less of an emotionally driven response. In Rome and the South, you will find that most people take these issues very personally. Also, be prepared for Italian humour that can come across as being very cynical or sarcastic. You could feel that they are laughing at you; just don’t take it to heart.
As a rule, Italians tend to communicate a great deal. By communication we mean either speech or gesture, but in Italy one does not preclude the other; to the contrary, they complement each other. In the workplace and in daily life, Italians augment verbal communication by pronounced gesturing and frequent facial expressions in order to add liveliness to speech. While they speak to someone to explain or argue a point, Italians have a tendency to brush against or touch the other person (e.g., on the shoulder or the arm). In this way, the latter feels more comfortable and may better pay attention to the contents of the conversation.
Although in some respects men use physical contact more frequently than women, the fact remains that it is a dramatic gesture, but a positive one. That is why, from the point of view of proximity, it is not an intrusion into the intimate space (i.e., 18 inches or less, according to Edward T. Hall), much less the personal space (i.e., 1.5 to 4 feet, again according to Hall).
Italians are far less sensitive about personal space as are Canadians and you might feel as though they are invading your comfort zone. What Canadians would feel to be an acceptable distance might seem like you are being cold or distant towards an Italian. Also, Italians often touch each other while they are verbally communicating. You’ll rarely see an Italian talking without using their hands to express their ideas. I’ve yet to see an Italian that is able to talk with their hands in their pockets. Eye contact is fine when you would like to engage in a conversation, however you should avoid making eye contact with strangers unless you want to get their attention. Eye contact can be misinterpreted when you are looking at someone of the opposite sex in public. Greeting and saying goodbye are both done with one kiss on each cheek. However, colleagues at work rarely kiss each other unless they know each other on a personal level.
Public displays of affection are commonplace. The younger/middle generation are very open with their feelings towards their partners, as you will often see couples kissing/embracing each other openly on the street. Even older couples will be found kissing or at least hand in hand. When it comes to homosexuality, this is not the case. Same-sex couples have less freedom to express their affection openly without evoking very insulting responses. Interracial couples can also expect to get a second glance from onlookers. The best way to describe their use of body language is overly-dramatic or theatrical. On the Metro in Rome outbursts and confrontations between complete strangers are a common occurrence.
Display of emotion
Shows of emotion are fairly common in Italy given that Italian men and women often greet one another by kissing once on the left cheek and once on the right. Since Italians are an outgoing and vivacious people, emotions may be more tolerated in public than in Canada. However, in the workplace where relationships are more formal a handshake is preferred.
Public displays of affection are commonplace. The younger/middle generation are very open with their feelings towards their partners, as you will often see couples kissing/embracing each other openly on the street. Even older couples will be found kissing or at least hand in hand. When it comes to homosexuality, this is not the case. Homosexual couples have less freedom to express their affection openly without evoking very insulting responses. Interracial couples can also expect to get a second glance from onlookers. The best way to describe their use of body language is overly-dramatic or theatrical. On the Metro in Rome outbursts and confrontations between complete strangers are a common occurrence.
Dress, punctuality & formality
The manner of dress for work leans toward the formal and conservative. Italians pay particular attention to dress and grooming (e.g., haircut, cologne). Professional relationships remain not only formal, due to the distinction between “tu” (the informal form of address) and “lei” (the polite form of address), but also hierarchical, because one must address a colleague having a university degree as “dottore” (for a man) or “dottoressa” (for a woman) followed by the family name. Moreover, one is strongly advised against going to work in jeans and addressing employees by their first name (unless you are invited to). This could be disapproved of in the workplace.
Italians are rather lax when it comes to absenteeism and delivery of work product after the agreed upon date (provided that evidence or a plausible justification is offered). Punctuality in arriving at work, and above all for meetings, is important. However, when you are invited for dinner, delay your arrival about twenty minutes, and in the case of a party or special occasion you may delay your arrival by about thirty to sixty minutes.
Italians typically dress very fashionably regardless of their age or gender. Men are expected to wear suits and ties in most office environments. Whereas women definitely have a wider range of clothing options which tend to be more provocative than female business apparel in Canada. It is very common to see mid-aged women dressed according to the latest trend whether it is leather suits, fishnet stockings or stiletto boots. Clearly, women in the workplace are encouraged to dress in a flattering way, sometimes even with cleavage exposed. Although it might appear as though most women dress-up in Italy, any woman needs to think twice about how her clothing will attract attention outside of the office on her way to and from work. It is not difficult to attract much unwanted attention on the Metro and surrounding streets. As a female it is advised to dress as you wish but to take into consideration and be prepared for the reactions you might get, especially if you look like a foreigner.
The best way to address Italian colleagues/supervisors is to use formal language until it is well understood that you have formed a more personal relationship. Especially if you are junior be sure to address your colleagues/supervisors with “Mr.” and “Mrs”. The Italian approach to time is far more laid back than the average Canadian workplace. In the office environment, it is quite common to see people taking 2 hour lunches as well as several lengthy coffee breaks throughout the day. Shops usually close between 1 and 4 p.m. Workers take a break when the heat is most intense and enjoy a leisurely meal. People are rarely punctual for meetings, meaning that they usually commence 15 min. after the scheduled time. Italians typically work fewer hours than Canadians per day and their schedule is far more flexible.
Preferred managerial qualities
For Italians, the most sought after qualities in a supervisor or manager are a good level of education, experience, and a tendency to maintain a climate favourable to the development of good relations with the staff. As far as leadership and openness are concerned, supervisors and managers tend to reject these because they could be harmful to the status quo, the traditionalism, and the bureaucracy that govern labour relations in Italy. In the event that the supervisor or manager is from another country, it is possible that his abilities be put in doubt in the workplace. In other words, one may believe that he does not possess the knowledge or experience to supervise and that thus he requires assistance and additional explanations. In this context, it would be possible that a co-supervisor or co-director would take the reins of management in the short- or medium- term in order to grant the new supervisor or manager the time required to adapt to his new professional reality.
The best way to understand the manner in which personnel perceive the supervisor or manager and his ideas is for him to analyse both the facial expressions and the eyes of his employees (e.g., a frown, a look of surprise), that is, body language. The possibility of the supervisor or manager directly questioning an employee to gather the latter’s opinion of him is to be discouraged, since finding himself in an inferior position relative to the manager, it is improbable that the employee would venture to share his deepest thoughts.
Unfortunately the qualities that are most highly regarded in the Italian workplace tend to be based upon your personal connections or family ties rather than qualifications. Local superior/managers have very little regard for education and leadership in comparison to their need to fulfill certain nepotistic obligations. Because formal education is offered free by the state, there is less regard for academic qualifications. The job market is also quite grim; I have seen many examples of fully qualified lawyers seeking work as babysitters or psychologists seeking employment as translators. As a Canadian I feel that working for a non-local would be easier because they would be more likely to take into consideration my experience and education whereas an Italian boss would be more interested in how well I can fit into Italian society.
Hierarchy and decision-making
The manager makes decisions after having held discussions with the staff (i.e., senior staff). The manager is usually proud; he follows the standard procedure of consulting staff members but tends to impose his vision, his ideas, and his will. It is in the realm of ideas that one must be very careful before immediately consulting the supervisor to obtain feedback. This may be seen as a sign of agitation and irritate the supervisor. The approach to take is to be patient (i.e., for hours or days).
The hierarchy within the workplace is well established and employees realize that it is not in their best interest to overstep their superiors. Ideas can be generated by all employees however it is very rare that credit will be given to anyone other than the boss, or upper level management.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Men and women are equal before the law. Women may aspire to hold the same job positions as men. Nevertheless, women are reluctant to take positions of high responsibility because they favour the nuclear family over a professional career.
Although Catholicism is the most adhered to religion in Italy (about 85% of Italians claim to belong to the Roman Catholic Church), religious freedom is protected by law by the constitution of 1947 (note that the constitution took effect on January 1, 1948). Almost one Italian in two goes to church every week.
Italians identify mostly with the middle class. But the idea of “class” in the Marxist sense is not common in the general population.
Since the end of the Cold War Italy has been welcoming many immigrants, especially from North Africa and the Balkans. Currently about 6% of the population is non-Italian. Note that a non-European immigrant must live in Italy for at least ten years if he wishes to be granted Italian citizenship and to be able to accede to positions in the public service. Since immigrants to Italy are often poorly educated and rarely speak the local language (this is vastly different from the case in Canada), sometimes tensions arise between Italians and non-Europeans in the suburbs of well-to-do industrial cities like Treviso, Vicenza, Rome, or Milan.
These attitudes may have repercussions in the workplace. The work environment is not multicultural or multiethnic. In some offices it may be common to see a crucifix on the wall. Moreover, the majority of one’s colleagues or of the employees (especially in the senior positions) could be men (relatively old) rather than women.
Many Italian attitudes are very sexist in nature. Women seem to have certain roles in society that are not easily shared by men, i.e. cleaning, cooking, etc. At work I frequently see “sexy” secretaries, which fit a certain old-school Canadian office stereotype.
Most Italians are Catholic. It is very rare to see places of worship that are not dedicated to Catholicism. Most Italians dedicate a certain part of their salary for a Catholic charitable organization called “Caritas”.
Social structure is often defined by what area of Italy you come from, with the South being poorer and the North being more prosperous.
Although cities in Italy are becoming more and more multicultural, the general attitude towards minority groups is very closed-minded. Ethnic groups are extremely marginalized in society with Chinese and African selling contraband goods on the street and East-Asians manning Internet cafés. Italy has a very rigid immigration policy that attempts to keep unwanted refugees off of Italian soil. You will rarely see ethnic minorities working in Italian mainstream business or services.
It is important to establish a personal relationship with a client before doing business in order to create an atmosphere of trust. During a first contact, one must develop a good rapport with the client then later steer the conversation toward the subjects that you wish to discuss. In order to better acquaint yourself with the person with whom you are to establish a personal relationship, engaging in social activities is recommended.
The most common way to establish a more personal relationship with a colleague is to invite them to coffee or lunch. This is a very informal way of learning more about them without crossing any non-professional boundaries. You wouldn’t invite someone home for a meal unless you had already established a personal relationship as many Italians prefer to meet friends out at bars (coffee shops) or restaurants.
Privileges and favouritism
When professional relationships and friendship cross paths, a colleague or employee may expect to receive special privileges. This may specifically involve the hiring of family and friends. However, a colleague or employee would not expect special treatment from a casual acquaintance. Friendship and work acquaintance is not the same thing.
As mentioned before, the Italian workplace is based upon the expectation of special privileges. People can easily change the rules or make exceptions when they feel that it satisfies their personal needs or strengthens important relationships. Regulations and rules seem to be very flexible depending on who is asking for a favour.
Conflicts in the workplace
In the case of a dispute with a colleague, it is desirable to speak with him in private and indirectly. Often, Italians will adopt a subtle approach. They will invite someone for a cappuccino, a gelato, or a pizza with the aim of opening a conversation that deals with generalities such as the weather or one’s state of health, then broach the problem at hand (without ever really resolving it). Italians tend to avoid resolving disputes between colleagues because they fear the eventual repercussions on working relationships, this despite the risk or creating an unhealthy or hypocritical atmosphere.
It would be recommended to confront your colleague directly and privately. Most Italians will have little problem with openly displaying dislike for someone, as they are very public about displaying a grudge caused by something that someone has done to offend them. However, it is often best to confront the colleague to discuss the matter and to try and reach some sort of resolution or at least acknowledgement of the problem. However, be ready and prepared for a short battle.
Motivating local colleagues
In Italy, private sector employees are often motivated to be productive at work for one important reason: to keep their job. The fear of failure is a fairly common motive in the workplace. What’s more, due to a promotion or a pay raise, staff may be more likely to deliver satisfactory productivity. In the public sector, where one’s position is virtually guaranteed, employees may be persuaded to be productive at work in exchange for good working conditions (e.g., flexible work hours, longer sick leave, etc.)
Motivation to perform well on the job in Italy depends on the individual and it doesn’t seem to be very different than in Canada.
Recommended books, films & foods
With respect to literature, I recommend reading Giovanni Verga, Grazia Deledda and Luigi Pirandello. Although they are not relatively recent authors, they offer nevertheless a good perspective on Italy and the Italians.
The film “La vita è bella” reveals how Italians underplay dramatic events. A positive, optimistic, and comic outlook takes precedence over the tragic.
I would recommend not only all the great artistic cities such as Turin, Palermo, Naples, Milan, Florence, Rome or Venice, but also the two sovereign states within Italy, San Marino and the Vatican, and summer retreats such as Portofino, la Costa Smeralda and Capri, and the winter retreats like Cortina d’Ampezzo and Courmayeur.
In Italy, there is a great variety of food that must be tried: Risotto alla Pescatora, Pizza a Taglio, Pastarelle (e.g., Cannolo alla Crema, Diplomatico), Supplì, Spumante, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Stracchino, etc.
It depends on what layer of culture you would like to explore. For example, Italian television programming provides a good example of lower culture. You will notice that many shows are based on a strong sex appeal and are politically biased. It is important to take into consideration that the Prime Minister of Italy owns 3 of 7 major Italian television networks.
If you are interested in visiting historical buildings, Italy is the place to come. Walking around in city centres will provide a good snapshot of culture and heritage.
The Italian culture can be summed up as “dionisiaca” meaning that regardless on their everyday pressures, Italians can find solace in the small pleasures life has to offer them, whether it is wine, food or spending time with family and friends.
In addition to its diversity and history Italy offers several major cultural activities of which my favourites are Milan’s La Scala opera house, the Vatican Museums in Rome, and the annual Venice Film Festival. I do not recommend any newspaper. The newspapers are strongly political (on the whole, each political party has its own paper), and it is up to the reader himself to be selective. Among the main newspapers are “La Repubblica”, “Il Corriere della Sera”, “La Stampa”, “Il Giornale”, “L’Unità”, and “Il Secolo XIX”.
To better understand the Italian people, I believe that one must attend a soccer match, “una partita di calcio” at a stadium on Sunday. The “Calcio” is an integral part of society. Each city has its own soccer team, and in big cities sometimes more than one. The teams that have won most often at the national, European, and international levels are Turin’s la Juventus, the Milan, and Milan’s l’Inter. Italy has won the world championship in soccer three times. This contest takes place once every four years. Soccer enjoys the same status as hockey does in Canada.
There are several fascinating television programs that may be seen as a reflection of Italian society. The program “Porta a Porta” analyses different societal, often political, issues, in an objective manner. “La Prova del Cuoco” is a game show that deals with Italian cooking in all its diversity.
Italian movies are very corny and overdramatic however they will give you a glance at their culture. One of the most effective ways of learning about their people is to walk up and down the streets of the major shopping districts. I would also suggest signing up in a local Italian language course.
One can identify several national “heroes.” In the domain of culture and the arts we cannot omit geniuses such as Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci, creators of the Pietà, the statue of David, the Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper.
On the political front, the patriot Giuseppe Mazzini may be considered a “hero” because he is responsible for Italian unity. However, there are Italians in the north who advocate secession and claim among other things that the unification of Italy led by the Freemason Mazzini did not come directly from the people but from secret societies. Still on the subject of the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi is among the country’s great historical figures.
In literature, Dante Alighieri is well regarded in Italy. The father of Italian and European literature, he wrote the literary masterpiece “The Divine Comedy.”
Giacomo Puccini (“La Bohème”), Giuseppe Verdi (“Rigoletto”), and Gioacchino Rossini (“The Barber of Seville”) are among the principal pillars of the Italian musical and orchestral realm.
Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), Amerigo Vespucci (the name given the New World, America, comes from his first name, “Amerigo”), and Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Colombus) are Italian navigators and explorers widely considered national heroes.
It would be remiss not to name other eminent persons: Julius Caesar, Niccolò Machiavelli (the first great thinker in modern Italian and European political theory), and Guglielmo Marconi (physicist and Nobel Laureate in 1909).
Finally, there is also the “made in Italy” national hero which includes brands such as Ferrari, Prada, Fendi, Dolce e Gabbana, Gucci, Benetton, Versace, Parmalat, Armani, etc.
Soccer players are usually the national heroes depending on which team you are rooting for. In Rome, Francesco Totti, the name of their local soccer star is synonymous to “hero”. Most Italians would dream of being a famous soccer player with a lifestyle like a movie star.
On a more serious note, most Italians would agree that Nicola Calipari is definitely viewed as a hero throughout this country. This intelligence agent was shot down accidentally by American forces in Iraq (March 2005) while trying to protect a recently released Italian hostage. The shooting has reiterated the fury of a majority of Italians against their government’s decision to become an ally of the United States in the invasion of Iraq.
Shared historical events with Canada
Generally speaking, Italy and Canada are good allies. Nevertheless, during the Second World War, the two countries were enemies (it is important to recall that between 1943 and 1945 Italy had broken its treaty with Germany and joined the alliance that included the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, among others). As a result, many Italians living in Canada during that period were detained in camps. As such, this event could be harmful to a professional or social relationship between a Canadian and an Italian who experienced those specific circumstances either directly or indirectly. A minority of Italians might therefore perceive Canada in a negative way
Many Italians from the middle/southern regions are familiar with Toronto or Montreal because they have family that have immigrated to Canada. Some Italians came during the social and economic turmoil that followed the creation of the Italian state in 1861. However, Italian immigration to Canada reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. Italian Canadians represent the fourth largest ethnic group in the country.
Italians see Canadians as cold and “British” people, whom are extremely difficult to get to know. On the other hand, they see Canada as being an integral part of America. Indeed, the distinction between Canada and the United States is sometimes made with difficulty, as one tends to choose the general term, “America” to refer to both countries.
I am not aware of any such stereotypes that might be harmful to effective relations.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Rome, Italy the oldest of two children. He was raised in Italy, Algeria and in France. Son of an Italian diplomat, he moved to Canada in 1999. He studied at the University of Ottawa, University of Toronto and the University of York. He completed two bachelor degrees in Political Science. He is currently living in Toronto and would like to pursue a career in international relations.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Toronto the youngest of 3 children. She was raised in this city. She studied International Affairs at Carleton University. Her work sent her abroad for the first time in 2004 where she worked on international development projects based from the headquarters of an international organization in Italy.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.