La Dolce Vita: 10 Insights into Italian Culture

Before traveling to a foreign country, it pays to be prepared. Because this is time consuming, many people don’t do it, and the trip can fall flat. In this list, I explain the inner workings of the Italian people and culture that wouldn’t be immediately noticeable during a short visit to the country. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it does touch on the main points.

Sit down with a Cappuccino or Espresso and enjoy!

  1. Heart on their Sleeve: Italians are often characterized by their undisguised emotions, their gesticulations while talking, and their facial expressions that reveal much more than their words. (Barzini) Communication in Italy is a full body experience and interpreting meaning is an artform.

  1. All the World’s a Stage: If Italians are actors, the town square is the stage. The daily show begins when one leaves their home and ends when they return. A façade of prosperity, richness, and happiness is displayed in public, no matter what the real circumstances are behind the scenes. (Barzini) This can be seen in the way Italians always dress their best, flatter each other, and exaggerate their status in life. (Barzini)

  1. Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself: But under the covers, the main motivator in Italy is fear, specifically fear of poverty and injustice. (Barzini) Historically, and even today, the government hasn’t been dependable or just, and Italians rely heavily on their families and social connections to protect them from injustice and to gain power. (Barzini) The Mafia is a holdover from times when they were the only protection in town; feared, but tolerated, this corrupt and dangerous institution thankfully has slowly fallen out of favor. The Mafia is currently most active in Sicily where poverty is at higher levels than the rest of Italy. (Barzini)

  1. Breakin’ the Law: Since the government is seen as corrupt, true or not, the perception is that government officials can’t be trusted and the rule of law doesn’t matter, so Italians individually don’t tend to adhere to rules so strictly. (Barzini) They learn early in life that fairness doesn’t exist, loopholes exist everywhere, and the motto “it’s who you know, not what you know” hold true. (Barzini) This may explain why Italians are so attractive to non-Italians. Who doesn’t like the bad boy or the rebellious girl?

  1. Talking Heads: To thrive in business, direct speaking should be curbed, words measured, and ideas obscured. (Barzini) One must tread lightly, be obliging, and never be too much of anything, like too conspicuous, too daring, too trusting, or too confident. (Barzini) Stay in step with the crowd and don’t embrace definite opinions. (Barzini) On the Lewis Model, Italians show up “Multi-active”, which means they talk a lot with each other to come to decisions as a group, emotions are on display, and personal relationships are of prime importance. (Cross Culture)

  1. The Artful Italians: One can’t talk about Italy without tipping their hat to the many famous artists that still make Italians proud today. In the top ten, we have Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Giotto di Bondone, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Titian, Raphael, Tommaso Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli, Giorgione, and Tintoretto. (Learnodo) A trip to Italy wouldn’t be complete without a study of the art that represents the core psyche of the Italian people.

  1. The Brain-Drain: Some of the most famous scientists, like Enrico Fermi, Giovanni Schiaparelli, Galileo Ferraris, Alessandro Volta came from pasta-eating Italy, but the sciences today are not flourishing inside the borders, but outside, with more highly educated STEM graduates going abroad for better opportunities and pay. Italy has become a country of emigrants and is suffering a brain drain due to lack of good paying jobs. (Euro Scientist)

  1. In Name Only: The Catholic Church still appears part of everyday life in Italy, with 83% identifying as Catholic, but only 31% attending church regularly and “…the country still maintains formal ties with the Vatican through the Lateran Treaty of 1929, public schools are mandated to teach an hour of religious education per week, and Italy is home to 25, 694 Catholic parishes, the highest number in the world for a single country.” (Cripps) For pilgrims, Italy is a mecca full of beautiful churches, religious artifacts, and of course, the Holy See itself.

  1. Intolerance Persists: On one hand, Italians love all things foreign, but on the other, they are proudly rooted in their location and traditions that exclude foreigners who are often seen as alien. (Jones) Reasons for their intolerance are: their legacy of fascism, intangible feeling of insecurity, economic misery, and general dislike of diversity. (Jones) While Italians are incredible friendly and welcoming, at times they can push back on perceived threats to their way of life.

  1. La Dolce Vita: What does this mean then? I think its meaning is subjective, and so for me, it means a relaxed attitude, lack of tightly upheld rules, and the freedom to enjoy life’s small pleasures. But in reality, Italy is complex, messy, and beautiful, not to be taken too seriously or too lightly; it’s not perfect, but we love it that way!

{Sources: Barzini, Luigi. The Italians. Atheneum, 1964, New York. / Cross Culture. Know culture for better business, 2015,  / Cripps, Julia. “Complicated Catholicism in Italian Society.” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, 19 Feb. 2015,  / “10 Great Italian Painters and Their Most Famous Works”. Learnodo-Teutonic, / “Italian scientists highly valued, but only abroad.” Euro Scientist, 15 Apr. 2013,  / Jones, Tobias. “Why is Italy still so racist?” The Guardian, 30 Jul. 2013,  }

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