When thinking of Italy and Italians, what immediately comes to people’s minds are pizza, pasta, fashion, cars, and mafia. But what makes an Italian? As a proud “member of this species,” I have been trying to find the best possible answers, because, beyond these stereotypes, there are traits common to all of us.
When I moved to Australia in 2008, I found myself in an unusual position: I was made to observe my country and culture through the eyes of foreigners and those of the immigrants who settled here long ago. I realized that, even though I did not comfortably fit in any of the resulting images, some elements would stand out in all Italians. I started to wonder: “What exactly makes an Italian?” I came up with the following seven points.
Italians live and talk with their hearts. Whatever we do has some degree of pathos in it. We don’t just chat, we discuss, contest, question, appreciate, and argue, and we do it with all our bodies, our hands, our eyes, and facial expressions. Compared to other ethnicities, we can be loud, especially if the topic we are debating is important to us. Last week, I had what I thought was a lovely exchange of opinions with one of my colleagues, who luckily shared the same passion. At the end of it, someone asked if she was OK in regard to the fight we were having. We both laughed about it.
2. Meaningful content
There is only a certain amount of meaningless conversations that an Italian can tolerate. We like going beyond the surface of the “what’s-the-weather-like talk.” This doesn’t mean that we do not love a laugh or some easy jokes, but at the end of the day, we always look for substance. Furthermore, if we say something, we mean it. Just to give an example, we do not ask how a person is and walk away before receiving an answer. If we are not interested, we simply avoid the question.
Italians need and want to express their feelings. When we meet others, we hug and kiss them. We are warm people who seek human contact, thus we show it. Usually, we kiss our friends twice, one on each cheek, and hug them to say hello and goodbye. Once, I kissed and hugged an Irish friend and noticed that she became as rigid as a broom. Obviously, she was not used to and comfortable with my culture. Since that episode, I have tried to keep in mind that not all people like being “touched.”
4. Food: Tasty and healthy
Italians love their food and cuisine where healthy and tasty merge. When we don’t have much time to have a meal, we apply our own concept of “fast food.” Places like McDonald’s have no room in the heart of an Italian: We dislike junk food. A quick lunch for us is either a slice of pizza, a salad, a dish of pasta, or a sandwich. In all our meals, there’s usually some vegetables and other fresh ingredients. Pasta may be a light option, depending on the “sauce,” which can even be made of extra virgin olive oil with garlic and chili.
Italians care about their looks and body shape. As said above, we are careful to what we eat and take pride in the way we present ourselves. It is a sign of dignity and respect to oneself and others to look clean, tidy, and “elegant.” The most modest outfit can be “elegant,” as long as it is worn with class. Italians pay attention to matching colors, styles, and accessories, thus, even a pair of socks or a simple T-shirt become important. We do not need a special occasion to look smart, and we love our fashion!
6. Family and mother
Most Italians are very attached to their families. They live with their parents much longer than other peoples, and this has originated many jokes among other ethnicities. Due to different circumstances, including economical factors, many Italians in their 30s and 40s still live with mom and dad. This said, in some cases, this is a convenient choice, dictated by a component of laziness and “Peter Pan syndrome,” particularly present in a number of Italian males. This group of “adult-children” love being taken care of by their mothers, who cook and clean for them until — and if — they decide to leave the nest, usually to get married and start being looked after by their wives. On the other hand, we need to say that Italian mothers are among the most protective and possessive mothers in the world.
In general, family is important to all Italians, with some differences between southern and northern Italy. In the south of the country, families are usually bigger and very connected, whereas in the north, people often have fewer children and relatives are more independent.
7. Creativity… and cunning creativity
Italians can be daring and original, and the world is full of beauty that is made in Italy. Some of the best fashion designers, artists, inventors, writers, musicians, architects, car producers, and chefs are from “Il Bel Paese.”
Italians are creative also when it comes to getting around some “inconvenient” norms. They can “make up” an available spot in a full car park or in a busy road, as well as a job, when the market seems not to offer them an option. Creativity and intelligence are great qualities to possess, although unfortunately, some of us use them to take advantage of and trick the system — be it the taxation office, an insurance company, or the public health care – with negative effects on the wider community and all Italians’ reputations.
Overall, we are people with a generous heart and a romantic side, and even though this picture might not completely reflect every Italian, I believe that each one of us can relate to some of the above distinctive and mutual traits.