No two cultures are entirely the same. While most Western cultures are fairly similar, there are still minor differences that make each culture beautifully unique. Sometimes these differences seem strange or even counter-intuitive to foreigners. Italians struggle to understand why Americans insist on building everything “bigger” in hopes of making it “better”. Americans, on the other hand, will always have trouble understanding these 21 quirks in Italian culture.
1. The Bidet
A bidet is a must-have appliance in Italy. Almost every bathroom, both private and public, will have both a toilet and a bidet in Italy. In private homes, it is common to find a towel rack positioned alongside the bidet for conveniently drying oneself after using it. Some public washrooms might not have any toilet paper available at all because the bidet does the trick, so always make sure to bring your own, or at least small pack of tissues to be on the safe side.
2. Beware Wet Hair
Leaving the house with wet hair is considered a significant health risk in Italy. If your hair is wet, you are likely to catch a cold – or so says every Italian mamma. While this belief may have some scientific basis or simply be a product of superstition, every Italian household and hotel is equipped with a fon (hairdryer) to ensure that Italians step out looking their best and minimize the risk of falling ill due to wet hair.
3. Peeled Fruit (Including Grapes)
I remember how shocked my Italian host family was the first time they saw me stuff a grape (chicco d’uva) in my mouth, skin and all. Italians prefer their fruits peeled: apples, pears, peaches, and even grapes! You will come across some Italians who don’t mind consuming their fruits entirely intact, but they constitute the minority. The majority of Italians will cut their fruits into smaller pieces using a knife and fork.
4. Cappuccinos after 12pm
Cappuccinos are undeniably delicious, and you may find yourself craving a little sweet coffee in the middle of the day. However, Italians avoid consuming large quantities of milk (excluding gelato, inexplicably) after breakfast. For this reason, most Italians consider cappuccinos as a morning drink, to be enjoyed before or with breakfast. The substantial amount of milk is considered “heavy” on the body and is believed to disrupt digestion if consumed too late in the day.
That being said, especially among the younger generations, this “rule” is changing. It is now less scandalous for a young person to be seen drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon, although never with a meal, as it is considered too “heavy” for the body.
5. Il Bacetto
When greeting someone, it is very common to follow Ciao, buongiorno, come stai? (Hello, good day, how are you?) with a couple of cheek-kisses. Even between platonic friends. Even between coworkers who don’t like each other!
These kisses are light, and often not even directly touching your check. Friends, family, and acquaintances will greet each other with a kiss ghosted on each cheek (or more!) as a normal form of greeting.
6. No Swimming After Eating
You may have heard it said: you should wait 30 minutes after eating before going swimming. Italians, however, take this suggestion seriously. Some Italians believe you have to wait a whole 3 hours between the last bite of food and the first dip in the pool. During this time, your body is able to digest all of the food, thus leaving your body prepared to exercise and swim. Healthy digestion is very important in Italian culture.
7. Colpo D’Aria
Italians suffer from a handful of unique ailments unknown to Americans. One such ailment is colpo d’aria – literally “hit of air” – believed to cause various health issues ranging from earaches and sore throats to headaches and stomachaches. Italians attribute these problems to exposure to cold air, including a cold blast from an air conditioner or a chilly breeze hitting the skin when one is sweaty. As a precaution, Italians often wear scarves and layers for protection, even when the temperature starts to rise outside. Colpo d’aria is considered a genuine health concern among Italians, but Americans? Not so much!
8. Whole Spaghetti
Sometimes, I will break my spaghetti noodles in half before I cook a single serving so that they fit entirely in the small pot. Maybe you do to. But mi raccomando (listen to me and take my advice), don’t try that in front of a native Italian. It is a personal offence. Spaghetti is meant to be kept whole. The spaghetti, as it cooks, will soften and slip into the water. Don’t break the spaghetti, whatever you do.
9. Late Evening Dinner
Italians tend to prefer their dinner later in the night. Up north, most Italians consider 7 or 8pm to be the ideal dinnertime. Further south, however, Italians will often finish cooking dinner and start eating as late as 10 o’clock!
10. Children Out Late at Night
For that same reason, most Italians don’t conclude their serata (evening) until much later in the night. It is not uncommon to see whole families, small children included, out and about near midnight. This is not a sign of poor parenting, but a display of value in quality family time. In Italy, the lives of children are not separated from the lives of adults. Children eat the same restaurant food as the grown-ups (no menus for children) and stay out as late as the adults.
11. Pausa a Pranzo
An old-time tradition that is still held by many Italians in small towns is the envy of every American: a 3-hour lunch break. The pausa a pranzo is a long break meant to bring families together for the traditionally most important meal of the day: pranzo (lunch). During this period, both workers and students have ample time to return home and enjoy a delightful meal with their families, with sufficient time afterward to indulge in a post-meal nap.
12. My Birthday, My Treat
In American tradition, the birthday boy or girl is usually treated to dinner by their dear guests. However, in Italian tradition, especially in the south, it’s the other way around. The party guests are treated a special dinner paid for by the birthday boy or girl. For this reason, it is becoming increasingly common for young people to host their birthday dinner at their own home, serving home-cooked foods, in order to keep costs low.
13. High Carb Diets! They Work!
By some miracle, most Italians have a fabulously slim figure. But why is that? The foods Italy is most famous for are high in carbs! How is it possible that Italians have such lovely, thin shapes when they eat pasta, pizza, and panini daily? The truth most likely lies in other aspects of Italian culture, such as the tradition of walking where you need to go or the use of high quality ingredients with fewer preservatives.
14. Looking Good
Athleisure may be perfectly acceptable to wear out of the house in America, but in Italy, your sweatpants will need to bear the Gucci symbol in order to be considered out-of-house appropriate. Italians have a near-magical ability to dress well all the time – even in luxurious fashionable athleisure. Italians (actually, many European cultures) have a concept of “house clothes” and “normal clothes”. Your comfiest sweatpants are only meant for wearing around the house after school or work. The clothes you are seen wearing outside must always make you look well put-together according to Italians.
15. Downing Espresso
Espresso is meant to be downed in one go – like a shot. It is not meant to be sipped and savoured like an American coffee. In fact, most Italians drink their espresso standing up, right at the cafe counter where they bought it.
16. No Tips
In America, we tip everyone. Taxi drivers, baristas, the pizza delivery guy, the waiter at the restaurant, everyone! In Italy, they don’t. Unless the patron received exceptionally excellent service, Italians typically don’t leave a tip, nor do the workers expect one. One of the few exceptions to this “no tipping” rule is for private services, such as a private driver, tour guide, or the porter at your hotel if you’ve got huge and heavy luggage.
17. Hand Language
Most languages have a form of Sign Language for deaf and hard of hearing communities. Italian has a formal sign language, of course, but they also have an agreed-upon hand gestures used by everyone. Without using any spoken words, Italians can convey sentences such as “this girl is crazy”, “I think Giulio and Martina are an item now”, and “let’s leave this place” with hand gestures alone. Additionally, these hand gestures are used in conjunction with the spoken language. It is very hard for Italians to talk and keep their hands still. Speaking with one’s hands is an intuitive part of the Italian language!
18. Crazy Drivers
Italy is a beautiful country with a beautiful culture. One of the not-so-beautiful aspects, however, is their driving. Italians are notoriously crazy (dare I say, reckless) drivers. Traffic laws, traffic signs, and stripes on the road are not hard-set rules; instead, Italians view them as mere suggestions. They merge without using blinkers, they create their own parking spaces in the middle of road medians, and Vespas and motorbikes have the right to drive in between lanes and cut through traffic wherever they fit. Don’t get me started on Italian roundabouts – they are the thing of nightmares!
19. Sweet Breakfast
Breakfast in Italy is a sweet and simple affair. You won’t see Italians piling their plates high with loads of breakfast foods. And you certainly won’t see them eating something as savoury as bacon and eggs. A typical Italian breakfast consists of caffè or cappuccino and a sweet pastry or even a few cookies.
In recent decades, the United States has had a change in public view of smoking thanks to propaganda and statements by the Surgeon General. Nowadays, most Americans view smoking as a bad habit. This social attitude is not generally shared by Italians. In Italy, smoking is extremely common. Approximately ¼ of the Italian population smokes socially. You will even find ash trays on most outdoor restaurant patios.
21. Cutting in Line
Budging, or cutting in line, is a social no-no in America. “No budging” is a repeated phrase all over American grade schools as teachers try to impart the importance of waiting your turn to their students. This, however, is not the Italian norm. Cutting in line is commonplace in Italy, especially further south. This goes for both children and adults. Assert your dominance, cut the line, and get to your final destination sooner.
Ethics statement: Below you will find affiliate links. If you buy something after clicking the link, we will receive a small commission. To know more about our ethics, you can visit our full disclosure page. Thank you!
Are you interested in improving your Italian in a fun and stress-free manner? Then we highly recommend Serena Capilli’s short stories in Italian(affiliate link), designed for beginners, advanced beginners, and lower intermediate learners (A1-B1 CEFR). These stories have been optimised for English speakers in search of a fun, laid-back learning experience! Read our full review here.