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.
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 complimentary 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
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” might be used less than anywhere else in Italy. Perhaps 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 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.
- “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.