Customs and Etiquette in Italy

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Everybody knows (or at least assumes) that Italians are a warm, friendly people.  But beneath the surface of this easy, genteel exterior lays a refined undertone of rigid customs and etiquette in Italy that might not be apparent to the foreigner at first glance.

I’ve talked previously about the concept of fare una bella figura (making a beautiful figure).  I had tried to emphasize that while clothing is the most visible sign of this practice, it might not be the most important.  Indeed, your behavior says more about you than your couture, even if the subtleties can be lost on foreigners.  Take off your sunglasses when you address someone, and remove your gloves when you shake hands.  Don’t wear a hat indoors.  Cover yourself properly when entering a church.  Get your elbows off the table!  And always respect your elders.  Yes, manners matter.

Courtesies and Formalities

Italian society as a whole is really fond of courtesy forms and recognition of titles given by job positions, level of education, age, or—even more difficult for a foreigner to understand—the grade of acquaintance with a specific person.  Let’s start from that last point.  In English, we address anyone and everyone in the second person (singular and plural) with “you.”  It could be your best friend, your teacher, your priest, or President Obama; but the fact is, that’s the only form available.  In Italian, instead, when you bump into a stranger while walking down the street and you want to apologize—or when you want to thank the restaurant owner for the complementary shot of limoncello, you would use the third person “Lei” instead of “tu” (you).  It’s a form of respect and deference that maintains a certain social distance between people that are not familiar with each other.

customs and etiquette in italy

“Piacere di conoscerLa, signorina.”

The same use of this courtesy form occurs when speaking to somebody older than you, or when you are approaching a professional person that you are working with.   Often you might address them with the third person “Lei” form of the verb plus the title that the person has (Dottor, Maestro, Avvocato, etc.)  Funny how such a (supposedly) warm population likes to keep this type of formality, right?

If the use of “Lei” and other titles might persist in certain formal occasions, once you have introduced yourself to a person you might ask politely if he or she is comfortable with the friendlier and more direct “tu,” corresponding to the English “you.” (Possiamo darci del tu?) In almost every case, the person will agree with your request.

This is actually an opportunity to warm up quickly to a person that you’ve just met.  If you like the person, you’ll invite him/her to give you the tu” right away.  Note that the one who’s in charge of suggesting such a switch is the one of the higher social standing (i.e. your boss can tell you to use the “tu,” but you cannot suggest it to him).  And even if he/she addresses you in the “tu,” you should still use the “Lei” with them until asked to do otherwise.

On the other hand, you can switch back to a “Lei” after a short “tu” phase if the person does something that offends you, and you want to put that distance back in place again.  In fact, in the middle of an argument you might remind the person, “Mi dia del Lei” to let them know openly that they’ve pissed you off and you want to keep your distance.

I have a foreign friend in Rome who happens to speak excellent Italian.  Maybe too excellent for his own good.  I once watched him get into a heated argument with an employee at a clothing shop in which he invited her to, “Vada a fare in culo,” which is to say, “Vaffanculo” (Go F*** yourself!!) in the most polite way possible.  Incredible that he could be so angry and so polite at the same time.

The reasoning for this linguistic eccentricity is best explained by Luigi Barzini in his seminal book, The Italians.  He says: “This form of address, the third person singular, is left over from the Spanish rulers.  It is a conventional way of talking not directly to a man, but to his aura, so to speak, to a shadowy persona, la sua signoria, his lordship.”

Don’t worry too much about this; I merely want to point out the existence of this phenomenon, which permeates social graces as well as the language.  Just understand that Italians are big on formalities, politeness, and respect for age, social status, and titles.  But being a foreigner, they realize that you’re not acquainted with this practice and they will usually give you plenty of leeway in your manner of speaking.  Also, in Rome the “Lei” is less used than anywhere else in Italy.  This is due to the Latin inheritance, since Latin does not have such a form.  So relax and just do as the Romans do.

Perhaps more importantly for the visitor to Italy would be to abandon the idea of “getting right to the point,” whether you’re speaking in Italian or English.  Italians don’t like this way of conversing, and in fact are a bit put off by a person who forgets to say “good day” or “how are you?” before launching into his or her series of questions and demands.  It’s a good practice to slow down a bit and let the conversation warm up more naturally instead of reducing it to merely an exchange of information.  And don’t forget to say “grazie” at the end.

A History of Proper Decorum

I came across an excellent article the other day on the Italy Magazine website that addressed this exact topic and traced the historical evolution of these customs.  Very interesting, indeed.  The author reminds us of the Italian authority on such social graces, “Il Galateo overo de’ costume,” is a treatise of polite behavior written by Giovanni Della Casa in 1558 for the benefit of his nephew, a young Florentine destined for greatness.  You can see where some of these things are still held in esteem today in Italy, even if other countries have found reason to abandon such “rigorous” decorum.

galateo

 

Here are a few examples:

“One should not annoy others with such stuff as dreams, especially since most dreams are by and large idiotic.”

“To offer your advice without being asked is nothing else but a way of saying that you are wiser than those you are giving advice to, and even a reproof for their ignorance and lack of knowledge.”

“It is a barbarous habit to challenge someone to a drinking bout. This is not one of our Italian customs and so we give it a foreign name, that is, far brindisi.”

“We do not have the power to change customs as we see fit, for it is time that creates them and likewise time consumes them. Everyone, however, may adapt the current fashion to his own personal style.”

Good Manners are always in fashion

There might be a time in the future when the etiquette of behavior and the courtesy forms of speech will be extinguished from Italian society—but not in your lifetime.  Until then, try to be aware of who you’re talking to and what strata of society that they belong to.  Overdosing on courtesy forms and titles can still be very flattering to many Italians, whether it’s your boss or a beautiful woman (or her mother, if you get that far).  Show some understanding of the local rules.  It’s always a good thing.

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Comments

  1. Sabine Atwell says:

    So interesting, especially the part of the language. English a truly an outlier language in that it has now only one form of address rather than the two forms for formal and informal as in Italian and other languages, all of them: Lei-tu, vous-tu, usted-tu and Sie -du versions of European countries.

    In a way, the fact that these exist means that forms of social intercourse are more difficult, nuanced and complex than in the US. This presents a big hurdle for all non speakers of these languages. As a former German and teacher of German and French, my American students both in High School and college struggled with these concepts as they of course also have the appropriate very forms to go with it.
    However for a European it can be a bit daunting as wellto navigate the first name, last name, Mr. , Mrs. Mme, Ms. Dr. and other forms of address of American English that are all highly dependent on context and region.
    When I first was invited to a more formal social occasion in the US in the late 60ies, I found out to my astonishment that I was a ” Mrs. Fred Atwell.” ( I am a woman!)
    Great that you point out these social etiquettes. They are really hard to master and almost need a native speaker ” gestalt”. I can still do them very well in German since this is my native language. I found out in Spain last year that the “Usted ” ( polite)form is dying out there. Strangers addressed us with the tu. ( the familiar). This does not appear to be the case in Italy. Language is thought. Good old Shapir-Whorf whom we had to study in linguistics was quite right.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sabine, insightful as always. I didn’t know that about Spain’s use of the formal address dying out. I wonder if it’s the same in Latin-American countries, or if it’s only in Europe? But language is always more than just the meaning of the words; cultural context must always be considered. Ciao!

  2. Spanish also has the formal (usted) and familiar or informal forms (estas) Unless you are addressing a close friend or a person who reports to or works for you it is always best to use the formal.

  3. Georgia bavol says:

    Would your Italian-speaking foreigner friend living in Rome happen to be German?! Seems to me I recall an incident somewhat similar to yours, Rick, when I was in Rome several years ago…

    Hola, Tom! “Where in the world” are you?

  4. Great article! Sourced it on SurvivingInItaly because I think my readers would really enjoy your blog.

    • Thanks! Just checked out your blog, as well…hilarious stuff. You get big points for writing the things that most of wish we had the “palle” to say. Every time that I write something even remotely controversial, it seems I get bitch-slapped for it. Oh well, if you’re not making a few enemies than you’re probably not writing anything interesting….ciao!

      • Thanks Rick. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, I get the occasional “get out of my country bitch!” email but for the most part people take me (luckily) with a grain of salt. So far I haven’t been bitch-slapped unless you count that one time in a bar in Florence by a large Moroccan door man and I couldn’t hear for like two weeks (thanks, asshole, wherever you are).

  5. Courtesy forms exist in almost every European language. Someone here already wrote about tu/vous in French and du/Sie in German. From the point of view of an Italian living in France, I can tell you that it is nice to observe the difference in the use of these forms between a country and another. In Italy it’ much easier to refer to someone using the “tu”, while in France there’s a certain distance even between people having the same age. I think age is an important element, exactly like social position.
    About this, don’t forget that till 70 years ago we still had a monarchy and till 160 years ago there were a lot of noble families in each State composing the current Italy. I don’t like the naming “Presidente”, “Onorevole”, “Avvocato”, “Professore”, but it gives the idea of a society where social position matters, for two reasons: it can be a heritage to preserve from the mass, or simply it was a status difficult to obtain and so people try to emphatize it.
    Just to give you an idea, when someone calls me on the phone, in Italy they ask for “la dottoressa G….iano”, while in France I’m just “Madame” or “Mademoiselle”.

    • Great input, Pindy. It’s interesting to hear this from an Italian in another European country and learning the subtle differences. Indeed, as my job as an English instructor, I’m often addressed as “Professore” or “Dottore,” even though I never asked for this. Understand that from an American perspective, this feels odd…more than odd, almost embarrassing. We’re simply not used to it. But I love learning about this little cultural differences–it’s one of the things I enjoy most about travelling. Thank you for your insightful comments. Ciao!

  6. Great article! However, I’d like once more to be the blog’s “Bastian Contrario”…

    While I agree on pretty much everything you wrote, I don’t think that the “Lei” is less used in Rome than anywhere else – it’s still alive and (very) well. But of course, once you get to know someone this distinction disappears rather quickly.

    Moreover, I don’t think Latin to be somehow responsible for this perceived phenomenon – if you’ll pardon my French! – as every Italian dialect (and every other romance language, for that matter…) is based on it; yet, these languages retain the T-V distinction.

    More likely, this distinction is just a bit less prominent (but not absent) in the Roman dialect which, in my opinion, is the true culprit. Plus, Romans are renowned for having a… certain “disregard” for authority figures; very often we despise and mock them (you know, the higher his/her social standing is, the worse the mockery gets…).

    Now, I’d like to add my last two pennies – contray to what Barzini claims (he got many, many things wrong!), the T-V distinction not only was already in use well before the Spanish domination of the peninsula (which was limited to the Southern half of the boot and – rather “briefly” – on parts of Northern Italy) but was also a more complex matter, as it was “threefold”:

    - One would use the “Voi” with people of equal social standing, or strangers/foreigners;

    - The “tu” was reserved to servants, housemaids, and other people of lower status; children were expected to address their pearents with the “voi”… and nobody thought it was strange.

    - If you wanted to talk to really important people, such as Lords or the higher strata of the clergy, you’d have been required to formally address them by using the “Ella” (which would later become the “Lei”) – a contraption “Sua Eccellenza” (Your Excellency).

    Hope I made my point clear! :-)

    • Ciao Claudio! Yes, thank you…it’s very clear! You went into a lot more detail than I did, as well. And your point is well-taken about the use of Lei in Rome. Yes, perhaps I should have been more clear in saying that it’s used less in the dialect–although it’s often difficult for me to tell when someone is speaking dialect, Italian, or as is often the case, a mix of the two. (For example, when my wife speaks Sicilian with her family, I can clearly tell that she’s not speaking Italian. The difference is harder to tell in Rome, from a foreigner’s perspective.) As for our friend Barzini and his understanding of history, well, on that I will take your word! In fact, I’ve never come across another source to support his claim, so perhaps I need to study this phenomenon further! Grazie ancora, e’ sempre un piacere leggere i tuoi (o i Vuoi) commenti!!!

  7. I’ve met few italians that follows this advice ““To offer your advice without being asked is nothing else but a way of saying that you are wiser than those you are giving advice to, and even a reproof for their ignorance and lack of knowledge.” — Culturally, and as a generalization, they are a bit of know-it-alls, if I had a dollar for every person that has tried to raise my kid for me in the middle of the street. I mean perfect strangers! I would have enough for a getaway to Greece. It’s very common to share opinion even if you know nothing about the subject. So, I guess, they are just being “mal educati”. I struggle with the “lei”, my italian is not that good yet. :D

    • Well, the “rules” are one thing–whether or not people choose to follow them are another. :) Still, there is a formality of speech that simple doesn’t exist in the U.S., both from a linguistic standpoint and a cultural one. And like you, I still struggle to use it correctly. :)

  8. Bellavia says:

    I hate the Lei. I reserve it for elderly people and that’s about it. I know, I’ve been told I should use it for people “my age” too, but I just can’t. As my dad said…we all s*** on the same toilet, so….. ;-) Also, I find it confusing as some Italians will Lei service people, and others won’t. Some will Lei a peer on the street and others won’t. I use my “straniera gets out of jail free” card a lot. And don’t even get me started on how nel sud, a lot of pockets don’t recognize Lei and want VOI! My MIL pretended not to understand me when I used Lei and instead only responded to Voi. Mah…..

    • Yes, the criteria are so subtle, it seems, and of course it varies from region to region. I make all sorts of mistakes in speaking, so this one feels like a “less serious” to me. Still, I’d like to figure it out sooner or later!

  9. I’m so lame, I usually always use ‘tu’. Even in Miami I would use ‘tú’ more than ‘usted’ unless someone is really old. Miami is a casual city, so it didn’t seem like a big deal, but here in Italy…another thing all together.

    • I’m lame, too. Even on the rare occasion when I try to use the Lei, I usually wind up reverting to the tu…then back to the Lei…until my listener is totally confused and no longer certain who I’m addressing. Thanks for you comment, Tiana! Great post today, by the way!

  10. Very interesting Rick. It is wonderful that there is still respect shown somewhere in the world. We sure have lost it here in Australia. Would like to re blog this one day if that’s Ok with Lei
    Lyn

  11. Hi Rick
    I posted this one of yours today and have had many great comments

Trackbacks

  1. […] Advice for dating in your city?  Any wisdom you can share?  Like anyplace, it’s best to always be yourself, BUT it pays to at least be aware of dating protocols and social standards.  Manners and formalities are not only important in Italy, but they are slightly different than in the U.S.  I wrote a popular post on customs and etiquette in Italy, which you can read here.  […]

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