It can’t be that different, I hear you cry. Both European countries, only one hour of time difference, essentially both “Christian” countries… surely the differences are minimal? Well there are similarities, and culture shock going from the UK to Italy of vice versa is surely not as great is it would be between say the UK and Korea. However, some of the little differences can be disconcerting at first and might take some adjusting to. Here are my top 5:
1. Eye contact
To put it bluntly, Italians stare. At least that’s what it seems like to us Brits. Where we make minimal eye contact with strangers and tend to avoid looking someone in the eye unless speaking to them directly, the Italians, both male and female, will eyeball you up and down. It’s unnerving to say the least until you get used to it, and even after many years I still find myself checking my face for makeup smears, my teeth for spinach and my clothing for stains on a regular basis after feeling I have been stared at a little too much that day. Yeah, living in Italy may generate paranoia.
Oh boy, this is a big one. So big in fact that I wrote a whole post on it. Suffice it to say that while the rules of the road are officially more or less the same, in the UK they are considered rules and here in Italy they are more… guidelines.
The Brits are often lambasted by other cultures for their supposed formality, and the Italians often poke fun at them. The truth is far more complex, and as a matter of fact Italy always seems to rely more on social hierarchy than the UK does – even the language, which like French uses different forms of “you” depending on the level of respect you mean to afford the person you are speaking to, creates social division. Also, for economic reasons, social mobility is rather limited. One thing I really can’t get my head around is why everyone with a degree is called “dottore”. I’m not a doctor – my GP is a doctor, my PhD fiancé is a doctor. I, with a mere MA, don’t consider myself a doctor… yet the number of people with an MA or even a BA who wll get offended at the omission of this title is unbelievable.
I don’t mean the Italians beng darker skinned and shorter than the Brits. I mean the amount of care they take in their appearance. Polished nails, sleek clothing, coiffed hair and perfectly accessorised outfits… and that’s just the men. Seriously, the amount of care they take is incredible, and although it can sometimes seem a bit much it is refreshing to be around guys who don’t think that plucking their monobrow makes them somehow less of a man. I with the ladies would lay off the makeup a touch though.
5. Physical contact
The Brits don’t hug much. Close family and friends maybe, but certainly not acquaintences and colleagues. The Italians hug each other, pound each other on the back, walk arm in arm or hand in hand (without being a couple, and without any thought that someone might think they are gay) and dispense cheek kisses to all and sundry. It’s just the way they are. What takes most getting used to though is the reduced amount of personal space it is culturally expected to give someone. I still find it hilarious when walking down the street to see British tourists trying to stay out of everyone’s way and apologising to anyone they get too close to. Don’t. It’s unneccessary.
As I’ve said before, Italy is not better or worse in general, but it is… different. You’ll get used to most of it pretty quickly, but never completely. You’ll adapt, but never competely. This leads to what I like to call the Epxat Paradox – where is home? I’ll never have a simple answer to that question ever again.
Any other differences people have noticed/want clarifying? I’m all ears 🙂
With love, from Italy