Etiquette in Italy
Italy is a society that highly values both the individual and the family. Image and the building of personal relationships are also very important to Italians. However a central concept and popular idiom of Italian culture is that of “bella figura” – it literally translates to “cutting a fine/good figure”, and refers to the way in which you look and project yourself. It is the basis for much of Italian social etiquette.
Bella FiguraMaking a good impression is one of the mainstays of Italian social etiquette. First impressions count for a great deal in Italy, and you should be aware that quite often you will be judged first and foremost on your appearance. Although ‘Bella Figura’ does largely apply to your outward appearance, it is not exclusively concerned with just the aesthetics. Being regarded as a sympathetic, passionate, eloquent and knowledgeable person is also part and parcel of the “bella figura” ethos.
For this reason, when in Italy you should always try to dress well, and conduct yourself with a degree of quiet confidence. Being aware of any social hierarchies and respecting authority and family will help you to demonstrate that you are a respectable and considerate person.
Introductions and CommunicationItalians are well known for their open, bold, passionate and vivacious communicative style. Whilst this is quite evident in many casual situations, and it is usually expected that you should engage yourself in a similar manner, should you find yourself in a more formal setting, you should be aware that such forthright behaviour is not always acceptable. Be prepared to adapt yourself and ‘tone down’ for more formal occasions.
Because many Italians will judge based on their first impressions of you, it is crucial that any first introductions or meetings align with their concept of what is considered to be good etiquette. When greeting an Italian, it is good manners to make sure that you retain eye contact whilst shaking hands or engaging in conversation. This shows that you are alert and interested in what is being said. Your handshake should be firm and enthusiastic, and don’t be surprised if it is combined with hugging, or a shoulder slap for men or cheek kissing for women.
When introducing a group of people yourself, it is proper etiquette to introduce the most senior members of the group first, followed by the women, and then any other members present. Forms of address are Signore (Mr) and Signora (Mrs) followed by the family name. You should only address someone by their first name if this is how they have introduced themselves, otherwise it could be seen as too informal and disrespectful.
The use of a calling card is still used in Italy. It is not necessary if you are planning on staying a short while, however if you plan more prolonged visits, in order to adhere to Italian social etiquette, you should seriously think about getting a set of calling cards printed.
DiningEating and dining is an integral part of Italian culture. Family and social events will often revolve around the dining table, and as such you should be aware of the basic proper etiquette when eating out or invited to a dinner party in Italy. The importance of proper dining etiquette is evident in the fact that many Italian children are often taught proper table manners from an early age.
When shown to your place at a dinner table, you should wait for your hostess to seat herself before you do. Likewise, be aware that it is considered very rude to begin eating or leave the table at the end of the meal before your hostess does. Once seated you should avoid propping yourself up and leaning on your elbows at the table especially when eating. Also make sure that during the meal, your hands are always visible. It is thought to be bad manners to rest them out of sight on your lap.
The style of eating is ‘Continental’ – that is, a fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right, although eating “the other way round” is not really an issue. Wine is commonly served with meals, and your glass will be regularly topped up if it appears half full or close to empty at any point. You should try not to flatly refuse a top-up - leave your glass relatively full if you do not wish to drink any more.
Try not to use your fingers when eating – using a fork and knife with fruit and picking up pieces of cheese with your knife are considered more polite and sanitary. Also, in casual situations be aware that it is not usual to have a plate specifically for your bread, as it is usually placed on the table by the side of your dinner plate.