Traditions & Customs
Italy has a reputation for being a welcoming country and Italians are friendly and courteous, as well as very used to small talk and interacting with foreigners. Italian society is also much less formal than Northern European or English-speaking ones, especially in terms of introductions (Italians will introduce people to friends only rarely and very casually, not formally, so do not always expect proper introductions) and dress code. Also, don't expect that the average Italian will speak or even understand English, or that those who do will speak English in your presence: they will revert to Italian almost immediately.
Once a foreigner has mastered the language sufficiently, though, he/she will be required to start using polite forms of speech when addressing older folk, people who are not in their circle of friends, and any office/store clerk they come in contact with. In fact, using familiar verb and pronoun forms is rather rare except among friends, family, and sometimes peers. The Italian polite form of speech form uses the third singular person instead of the second person singular: "Lei" (also the word for "she", but used for both male and female as a formal way of saying "you") instead of "tu" (you [familiar]).
Italians greet family and close friends with two light kisses on the cheek. Males do, too. To avoid ending up kissing on the lips note that you first move to the right (kiss the other person on their left cheek) and then to the left. Other than that, the hand-shaking rules are the same as anywhere else in the western world.
Italians today are no longer the skirt-chasing Romeos described in 1950s movies.
Any other topic is more or less the same as in other Western countries with no special care to be taken or any special do's or don't's.
Whole essays can be written about the Italians' relationships with clothes. Three of the most important observations:
- Most Italians (especially young ones from the upper and upper-middle social class) are very appearance-conscious; don't be surprised or insulted if you are looked at askance for your 'eccentricity' in not wearing the latest customised jeans or boots.
- It's important not to judge people in return by their choice of clothing. Styles do not necessarily carry the same connotations in Italy that they would in Britain or some other countries. A woman in stilettos, miniskirt and full makeup at eight in the morning is probably just going to work in a bank. Almost all youths lounge about in skin-tight tee-shirts and casually knotted knitwear (and are very perplexed by the response they get when they take their sense of style and grooming to a less 'sophisticated' climate).
- Sometimes, clothing rules are written. To visit a church or religious site you will need to cover yourself up; no bare backs, chests, shoulders and sometimes no knees, either. Sometimes museums and other attractions can also be strict; no bathing costumes, for example. If you want to visit a church or religious site it's a good idea to take something to cover yourself up with; for example a jumper or large scarf. Some churches supply cover-ups, such as sarongs are loaned to men with shorts so that they can modestly conceal their legs. Even where there are no written rules, it's worth noting that bare chests and large expanses of sunburnt skin are unacceptable away from beaches or sunbathing areas, whatever the temperature is. It is considered impolite for a man to wear a hat in a Catholic church.
In the recent past, politics became polarized between those who supported prime minister Berlusconi and those who opposed him. After his government fell in 2011, this has slowly faded. Still, if you bring in the argument, be prepared for a heated debate. More recently, trust in the political system itself is fading, reflecting in a sharp drop in electoral turnout (which was traditionally high); expect most Italians to talk about politics with hopelessness, when not with anger.
Italians are usually modest about their country's role in the world. It should be easy to talk to people about history and politics without provoking arguments. People will listen to your opinion in a polite way as long as you express yourself politely. Fascism is out of the mainstream of Italian politics and sometimes seen as a blight, due to the dictatorship period (known as ventennio fascista). You'd best avoid such topics. Some older people who lived under Benito Mussolini (the Fascist dictator who was killed by the Resistance) could easily get upset, either because they lost someone to - or fought against - the fascist regime, or because they served in it. There are also some young people who support fascist views and usually such people do not like to talk about them, so simply avoid the topic. April 25 in Italy is the "Liberation Day", the national celebration of freedom from Nazi-Fascist rule.
On the other hand, communism does not carry the same violent significance for most Italians, though attitudes towards it vary; this is not unlike the situation in Germany, where Nazism is taboo but the communist regime in the East is not. Also, Italy had the largest communist party in the western world (though it had broken with the USSR over the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and by the 80's, began abandoning Marxism altogether); the traditional communist strongholds were the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, where many (especially, but by no means exclusively, the elders) still remember the Party with fondness.
Similarly, in the South, the Mafia could be a sensitive topic, so it is probably wise not to talk about it.
LGBT rights in Italy
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in Italy may face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in Italy, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are not eligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex couples.
Italian opinions have changed and people are now more supportive of LGBT rights, but tend to be more repressive than other European nations. Tolerance of others is part of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, which, at the same time, holds generally negative views of gay sex. Nevertheless, there is a significant liberal tradition, particularly in the North and in Rome. Conservative Italian politicians such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have expressed opposition to increasing gay rights. A Eurobarometer survey published in December 2006 showed that 31% of Italians surveyed support same-sex marriage and 24% recognise same-sex couple's right to adopt (EU-wide average 44% and 33%). A 2007 poll found 45% support, 47% opposition and 8% unsure on the question of support for a civil partnership law for gays.
While more information can be found on LGBT-specific websites, a brief summary of the situation is as follows: while violence is uncommon against openly gay people, some Italians are still disturbed by public displays of affection from same-sex couples and stares are almost guaranteed. Some same-sex couples prefer to avoid public attention. As is the case elsewhere, the younger generations tend to be more open minded than older folks, but assumptions should not be made in either direction.
Italians are very religious (young people too), you should respect the Catholic traditions especially in the Center and in the South.