Each culture has its own sets of beliefs and morals. This impacts on the way that people within that culture behave in different social situations. Over time, customs develop and it becomes an expectation that certain words are spoken or actions taken that are appropriate to specific occasions or social settings. Here are some Italian social customs for different situations and why they are important.
When meeting an Italian stranger for the first time, it is customary to shake their hand and say ‘buongiorno’, meaning good day. After lunch, ‘buongiorno’ becomes ‘buonasera’. Young people and close friends are more likely to say ‘ciao’, but this is generally considered impolite when meeting someone for the first time.
In a formal situation, it is also good manners to say ‘molto lieto’, and this tells the person you are pleased to meet them. When entering a lift, waiting room or shop, it is polite to give a greeting of good morning or good evening.
It is common for titles to be used in conversations between strangers in Italy, especially when addressing an older person. Titles are also used in accordance with someone’s professional status. For example, if someone has a university degree, then you will address them as ‘dottore’ for a man and ‘dottoressa’ for a woman.
When leaving you should say good day or good evening again and it is customary to repeat the handshake. You may prefer to say ‘goodbye’ and this is ‘arriverderci’ to a group or ‘arrivederla’ to an individual.
Lei and Tu
‘Lei’ is a formal address that you should use when addressing older Italians. ‘Tu’ is an informal address that is used between friends. You should not call a stranger or an older person ‘Tu’ or use their Christian name unless invited to do so by the person. 'Lei' should also be used when addressing people such as shopkeepers or bank managers.
It is common for Italians to kiss each other as part of a greeting. Unless you are lovers, this is a peck on the upper part of the cheek. Usually, they will kiss the right cheek first and then the left cheek. Even the men embrace each other and occasionally kiss. Sometimes, a man will kiss the hand of a woman, although this is a tradition that is rarely followed in modern Italy.
Invitations and Dinners
If you receive an invitation to dinner for an Italian family, you should arrive with a small gift. Typical examples of gifts include chocolates, pastries or flowers. If you opt for flowers, you should be careful about the variety you choose because some have negative symbolism. For example, chrysanthemums are associated with cemeteries. Gifts of foreign food are generally not appreciated and if you take wine it will not be served with the meal as the wine is usually already selected.
At a meal, Italians will say ‘buon appetite, before they begin. You should not start drinking your wine until the host has made a toast. If the host does not offer you another drink, it is an indication that they are ready for you to leave.
These are just some of the social customs that are followed by Italians. If you visit Italy, you should try to follow these customs whenever possible. However, Italians will generally forgive a foreigner if they fail to follow customs correctly.