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How to Make a Good Impression in Italy: A Guide to Italian Etiquette 

 October 7, 2020

By  Jessica Maggi

Every country, including Italy, has its fair share of unique customs and habits. Italians have etiquette rules that should be followed if you want to make a good impression and avoid awkward moments.

From eye contact to using tu and Lei, trying to blend in with the Italians and make a bella figura (good impression) can be a minefield. Here are some tips to help you adjust to Italian manners and standards, and avoid awkward gaffes.

Learn the language

Despite the stereotype of the people of Italy being super friendly, generous and hospitable, most Italians are very closed off to strangers, especially if they try to ask them something in any language other than Italian.

Learn some Italian. Even a little bit is fine! As long as you show them that you are trying to speak Italian, it will make them more likely to help you.

Meeting and greetings etiquette

First impressions are particularly important to Italians. When you are introduced to someone you have never met before, greet them with a brief, firm handshake with direct eye contact and a welcoming smile.

Italians place a lot of importance on polite eye contact. When you are greeting someone, smile and look directly at their eyes, without looking away. This creates a connection between you and the person you are greeting. In Italy, avoiding eye contact may be perceived as rude, unfriendly and even arrogant.

Upon meeting, both friends and acquaintances wish each other good day by saying buongiorno (good morning) or good evening by saying buonasera. Upon leave-taking, say arrivederci (goodbye). Ciao (informal hello) isn’t to be used between strangers. 

See also: Basic Italian Greetings

How to do the Italian cheek kiss

In general, Italians are more touchy-feely than folks from Anglo Saxon countries, and kissing as a form of greeting is the norm. 

In Italy it is a common practice to greet someone with air-kissing on both their cheeks, first the right and then the left. This holds true both if you have known someone for quite a long time and if you are just newly acquainted. 

The cheek kiss is one of the customs with the highest potential for embarrassment for non-Italians. As a matter of fact, there is a strong likelihood of accidentally bumping heads, butting foreheads, bashing noses and kissing someone on the lips. 

The general rule is to give two light kisses, one on each side, starting with the right cheek and then elegantly moving to the left one. Disclaimer: your lips shouldn’t touch the other person’s cheek. Just aim to lightly touch your cheek to theirs.

Dining etiquette in Italy

Italians have food rules that should be followed if you want to fit in. Table manners are crucial to most Italians, and should be respected in all circumstances, both in fine dining restaurants and during a dinner party with friends and family. My tips for you:

  • Don’t keep your hands in your lap during the meal. Keep both your hands above the table. Wrists should be on the table, but never your elbows. 
  • After food has been brought to the table, place your napkin on your lap and not around your neck.
  • Wait until everyone is served before starting to eat.
  • Eat with your mouth closed.
  • Don’t speak with your mouth full.
  • Don’t make loud noises when eating. If your food is hot, wait a couple of minutes to avoid any obnoxious noises.
  • Use your napkin to wipe your mouth before and after drinking, and be sure that the dirty part of your napkin is hidden.
  • Take small portions. If you want more, you can go back for a second helping.
  • Don’t ask for ice in your water if you want it cold. You’ll get a funny look by the people.
  • If you don’t want more wine, just leave your glass half full. Don’t put your hand over your wine glass.
  • Never, ever belch at the table. While this custom may be acceptable in other cultures, burping in public is strictly forbidden in Italy.
  • Don’t use toothpicks at the table.
  • Don’t smoke while eating, and note that smoking has been banned in all public establishments in Italy.

In a restaurant, be polite with your waiter. Don’t call across the room for attention. If you want the bill, ask for it. Once you have finished your meal and are ready to go, politely signal for the waiter and say “Il conto, per favore” (The bill, please). The universal squiggly-finger-in-the-air hand signal will work too. 

A couple of extra tips for you:

  • Avoid showing up at an Italian restaurant before 8:00 pm.
  • You are not expected to tip restaurants in Italy.
  • In formal situations, avoid wiping the sauce off your plate with a piece of bread. Only if you are with your friends and family it’s okay to do so.
  • When invited to dinner at somebody else’s home, bring a gift for the host. Bringing a main course dish is considered very strange. Stick to dessert or a bottle of wine.
  • Remain standing until invited to sit down, as you may be shown to a particular seat.
  • Especially if you are invited to dinner at somebody’s home, don’t ask for salt, pepper or spice for your food. By requesting extra, you are telling them that the food they made for you is not good enough.
  • It is considered extremely rude if you leave immediately after dinner.

Note that wishing someone buon appetito (bon appetit, enjoy your meal) before beginning to eat is impolite. In Italian courts in the Middle Ages, the nobles would occasionally offer banquets to their servants and wish them buon appetito, meaning: “indulge in the food you are offered and eat as much as you can, because chances are high that you won’t be invited to another feast again”.

See also: Italian Words and Phrases for Dining Out

Dress appropriately

Dressing well is a priority in Italy to make a bella figura. Remember, this is the country that gave the world Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Versace, Gucci, Valentino, Missoni, Loro Piana and Bottega Veneta, just to mention a few. 

The right attire and how you present yourself speaks volumes in Italy. My tips for you:

  • Go for good quality clothes. We are not necessarily talking about high-end fashion brands or the latest trends. Wear garments that are well-cut, stylish and that won’t fall apart after the first couple of washes. Leave the cheap clobber at home. Torn, dirty or worn clothing are a no-no in Italy, and will be met with snorts of derision.
  • Avoid the opposite extreme, too. Over-dressing or dressing all time as if you were invited to a royal wedding will make you look ridiculous.
  • In informal occasions, wear casual stylish clothes.
  • Don’t bare too much flesh. In summer, Italians always complain about half-naked tourists wearing way too revealing clothes and blighting the landscape with their bums hanging out of their hotpants.
  • Flip-flops are to be used ONLY at the beach. Never, ever wear them in any Italian city, regardless of the temperature. Go for a classier pair of sandals. Scruffy shoes are also a big no-no.
  • Regardless of whether the sun is out, wear designer sunglasses. The bigger, the better. 

If you are planning on visiting a cathedral, a religious site or a place of worship, your shoulders and knees need to be covered, otherwise you won’t be let in. Sleeveless garments, crop tops, shorts and mini-skirts are taboo in churches throughout Italy. Bring a jumper or a shawl to wrap around your bare shoulders and legs before entering a church. A couple of extra tips for you:

  • Never bring food into a church. 
  • Don’t sip from your water bottle while inside a church. 
  • Turn off your cell phone before entering. 

Behave politely

Tu or Lei

As you probably know, there is informal and formal Italian. Informal tu is used with children, peers your age, friends and family members. Formal Lei is to be used with elders, teachers, strangers and acquaintances.

Before switching from formal Lei to informal tu, wait for the other person to give you express permission to do so by saying “Diamoci del tu”, which is the Italian equivalent to politely requesting to be called by first name in English.

Personal space

Keep a distance of about an arm’s length between you and the person you are talking to. If you stand closer than that to someone who is not your partner or a very close friend, they might think that you are being overly familiar or even invasive.

Eye contact

As mentioned previously, Italians give paramount importance to eye contact. Be sure to maintain eye contact and smile while talking to someone. If you look away and avoid eye contact, the person you are talking to may think that you are nervous, unfriendly and trying to hide something.

Don’t be loud

Despite the stereotype, most Italians aren’t that loud. Speak with an appropriate tone of voice for the place you are in. In order to understand what tone of voice is appropriate, listen to how other people around you are speaking. Italians usually speak in a quieter voice when they are in places like a library, a bank or the hospital. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

Hold the door open

When you leave or enter a café, a shop or any other place, smile and hold the door open for people entering or leaving at the same time. That way you are not letting the door close in their face. This is a very nice little thing to do, which people will appreciate.

Cover your mouth when you cough, yawn or sneeze

If you happen to cough, yawn or sneeze in public, put your hand in front of your mouth. Say “Scusi/Scusa/Scusatemi” (excuse me) right away if you forget to do so.

Never, ever put your feet or shoes on a chair or bench in public

Taking off your shoes in public is out of place in Italy, except at the beach. Don’t take off your shoes, then, and don’t place your feet on a chair, bench or table in public. If you do, that seating place or table will be considered dirty.

Shopping etiquette

In a small or medium sized shop, greet the shop assistants and cashiers as you enter, not only when you approach the counter to pay. A welcoming smile followed by a friendly salve (formal hello), buongiorno (good morning) or buonasera (good evening) warms the atmosphere. However, keep in mind that Italians can get uncomfortable if treated with too much familiarity by a perfect stranger. 

If you want to try something on, always ask the shop assistant for permission.

When paying, cashiers usually expect you to put money down on a little dish or tray provided, rather than placing it directly into their hands. They will do the same when giving you your change. 

Even if you haven’t bought anything, always say “grazie” (thank you) and “arrivederci” (goodbye) before leaving a shop. 

Doing Business in Italy

Especially in northern Italy, punctuality is viewed as a virtue. Italians take punctuality for job interviews and business meetings very seriously. Make sure to be on time!

If attending a business function, dress formally. Men should don a suit and tie, while women should wear a formal, feminine outfit with elegant accessories. 

Avoid scheduling business meetings in August, as most companies are closed and employees are on vacation.

Gift giving is not the norm in Italy. Once you have established a trusted relationship with a client or business partner, it is appropriate to give a small gift.

Drinking 

Most Italians like wine, beer and alcoholic drinks, but usually avoid getting drunk. Drinking excessively is frowned upon, and public drunkenness is abhorred and much less tolerated here than in other countries. Drinking alcohol from a bottle while walking down the street is highly frowned upon in Italy.

If you want to make a good impression and avoid awkward moments, it’s a good idea to review Italian etiquette rules before traveling to the Bel Paese.

 FUN AND EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN ITALIAN

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Jessica Maggi


Jessica is a native Italian speaker, a passionate linguist and a proud Grammar nerd. She has a lifelong passion for English and studied Linguistic and Cultural Mediation at the University of Milan. She currently works as a freelance translator and copywriter.

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