A leap into Italian culture

April 14, 2022

In this blog article, I’ll dive into the phenomenon known as culture shock, exploring personal insights on navigating the initial challenges of being an expat in Italy. Discover tips on embracing the nuances of Italian culture and seamlessly integrating into your new surroundings!

Navigating cultural shifts

Cultural transitions are inherently subjective, shaped by individual experiences and backgrounds. Looking up forums and groups, you can quickly find inquiries about emigrating, studying and living abroad in Italy (eg. expats in Italy, how to register residence, work in Italy, how to register a car) and you’ll surely notice that discussions are endless and that approaches are different from case to case. 

Our personal emotions, linguistic knowledge, surroundings, values, upbringing, and prior knowledge of Italy are diverse. This is why, in my view, it's crucial not to make assumptions when abroad and to cultivate a basic trust to engage more effectively with others and foster meaningful connections.

What is a culture shock?

On a scientific level, "culture shock" describes an emotional state one experiences when colliding with another culture. This emotional state was well presented in a graphic form by US anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, who introduced a whole theory on the subject using a highly interesting culture shock model.

However, since everyone experiences very different situations and emotions growing up, contrary to a generic "crisis," not everyone encounters a drastic shift. Also, the North-South divide in Italy introduces regional nuances, reflecting Italian culture diversity and thus providing very different experiences based on the region and city you live in or travel to.

Three cultural peculiarities that may look strange to foreigners

Openness of Italian people

Try to sit in a bar or to wait for the bus alone. You’ll find out soon enough that people will approach you, especially in southern Italy, to involve you in small talk and casual conversations. This is part of the Italian daily life and you should expect friendly interactions wherever you are.

To give a few examples, you might find out that colleagues will welcome you warmly the very first day on the job and tell you about their private life after a few minutes of conversation. While this might not be the norm everywhere in the world, I’d say it’s pretty normal in Italy, especially in the South. Even at the supermarket checkout, it’s normal for the cashier to chat with customers and coworkers and to crack some jokes with them, making the transaction take longer than expected. This is the very reason why longer waiting times, queues and delays are at the order of the day in Italy. 

How to fill these “standing times''? Just try and embrace the slower pace, perhaps with an espresso at a local bar or chatting with someone!

Celebration of food

Sharing a meal, whether it's a dinner in an osteria or a barbecue party with friends, holds significant importance for fostering companionship, engaging in conversation, and savoring the richness of Italian dishes. And yes, exploring Italian cuisine is  complex.

Living in Italy will transform your culinary perspective: you’ll bid farewell to pineapple on pizza for a lifetime and find yourself in a new world made of regional dishes little known abroad that I encourage to try and embrace, steering clear of touristy establishments and seeking recommendations from Italian friends for authentic experiences. Exploring regional specialties is indeed a must, whether it's the perfect risotto alla milanese in Lombardy, bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence, pesto alla genovese and typical focaccia from Liguria, risi e bisi and original tiramisù in Veneto, arrosticini and spaghetti alla chitarra in Abruzzo, orecchiette and panzerotti from Puglia, authentic wood-fired pizza in Napoli, carbonara and cacio e pepe in Rome, arancini (or arancine!) and cannoli in Sicily. And the list could go on forever!

Moreover, if you get the chance, cook with Italians or share a meal at their homes. It's a fascinating experience that offers valuable insights, even if you can't fully capture the Italian knack for ingredients. And last but not least, try venturing into an Italian supermarket. Personally, I could spend hours perusing the shelves, almost tempted to buy out the entire store!

Students of Italian eating together dinner

Where work, there bureaucracy

Stepping into the working world of Italy marks a definite shift, especially if you favor planning and structure to the Italian dynamics where working hours and leisure time seem to overlap in an unconventional way. Take email communication: instead of waiting for feedback after five days, or even better, without writing an email at all, it's more effective to simply make a direct call. Telephone communication, increasingly through WhatsApp voice messages and Zoom calls, often proves to be more efficient!

You should, however, note that these observations aren't universal. It would be inaccurate to assert that "nothing works" in Italy. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, significant digitization efforts have been made, digitizing processes like B&B check-ins, ticket purchases, and Green Pass issuance. From my perspective, some aspects function even more efficiently than abroad and the quality of service and hospitality consistently ranks high. 

You’ll find out very soon that the Italian workday tends to unfold spontaneously, accommodating unforeseen events. While flexibility becomes second nature over time, there's no need to fret about the occasional surprises that come your way!

Overcoming the foreigner status

Don’t want to feel like a foreigner in Italy? The solution is surprisingly simple: don't be one! 

A friend once shared the wisdom, "If you don't consider yourself a foreigner, no one else does." I believe this is true. Maintaining constant awareness that you're in a different country and approaching situations with an unbiased mindset is crucial. Keeping your composure, even in challenging moments, is essential but navigating this experience isn't as daunting as it may appear. People in Italy like to lend a helping hand wherever possible and a stay abroad period in Italy will help you become more self-confident and get a fresh perspective on your home country. Just like any overseas stay, it cultivates cultural tolerance and enhances your ability to navigate intercultural situations with ease!

If you're eager to fully immerse yourself, consider a language study trip to Italy. Such experiences not only accelerate language learning but also provide an authentic introduction to the intricacies of Italian culture!

Ready for a life-changing experience in Italy?

Take your chance and shape your future in the “Bel Paese”!

Explore our programs!