Understanding the Italians: traits and peculiarities of one of the most loved and discussed people in the world.

Passionate, unruly and latin-lovers? What’s more behind the classic clichés about Italians? A first-hand opinion of a native.

beingitalian

I was recently asked what it means being Italian for me. I’m aware that explaining what implies belonging to a certain people is always challenging, but I fear that talking about ‘Italianess’ can be very complicated. The common image wants us to be in a certain standard way – this cheerful, passionate, unruly people always singing opera or eating pasta – but I think we agree that this is how stereotypes work, they  have a seed of truth, but they can be quite limited. I will try to give an honest opinion, but it’s obviously not simple being objective.

A living contradiction

Generally speaking, I would say we are contradictory: a young people with the baggage of a Methuselah behind our back.

We are a young country – as Italy, as a unified state, was founded only in 1861 – but our culture is millennial. There’s a say in Italy that states that our culture was born before the country itself, which sounds ridiculous but that’s definitely true. As people we carry a heritage which is important and rich. With our millennial history behind our back, we have a set of traditions and knowledge which should be a treasure to preserve and to use to our advantage, but that sadly too many times translates itself in an old mindset and a society that discourages initiatives and hates innovation. This is really bad, since, as people, we are naturally inventive and creative, but we are never given the opportunity to employ these talents and put them to use for the collective. It’s not uncommon seeing talented Italian researchers and inventors going abroad in search for work and opportunities: in Italy this phenomenon has even a name, the “brains’escape”.

Disenchanted and guarded human beings

This historical baggage, on the other hand, is what causes us to be pretty disillusioned and allows us to see things other younger (and more optimistic) peoples still fail to see: power infects people’s minds. There is no such a thing as “national pride” and “faith in one’s country”. Power can’t be trusted. Ever. We have learned that the road to hell is paved by the best intentions, so when we see politicians who promises miraculous solutions to all the problems, we know by instinct they’re not to be trusted. Once you gain the power, corruption is behind the corner. You probably think that political corruption is something typically Italian and this is certainly true to some extent, but I honestly think that it is everywhere, it’s just that in Italy is more “in your face” and so ingrained in the system that society started to think it is normal and almost to be expected. But I truly believe it is everywhere: remember, “Animal Farm” was not written by an Italian.

So, for all this reasons, we don’t trust politicians and governments. But, as a general rule, I feel like we just don’t trust anyone outside our small circle (mind, I’m not saying we’re not friendly, we just don’t trust easily!): this is said to be partly because of our history – a country invaded and conquered by basically everyone during the centuries can be that trusting – but, on the other hand, I think it’s thanks to this that the family bond is so close. In a country where the Government is something so distant and so oblivious of the everyday needs of the population and where public support, as a consequence, doesn’t exist, family is what sustains the system. There are not enough public kindergartens? Here there are grandparents looking after the kids. The rest homes are too expensive or the waiting list is too long? Here there is the offspring looking after the elderly. It’s also not uncommon having your neighbours helping you out if you need it, especially in the small towns. The catholic heritage and the lack of a public support surely have helped to grow a sense of family and community which I haven’t seen in many other countries. We are helpful and caring, I think.

Resourceful creatures 

Another aspect that an American who lives in Italy made me notice is that we are quite analytical people: our educational system, among the other things, wants us to study philosophy and argumentation, so we are often encouraged to think critically. I remember that, when studying Italian, we were also required to write essays where the presence of a personal opinion was part of the final evaluation, and when studying law and political economy we were constantly encouraged by our professor to go to vote and use the brain before making a decision. We often discussed in class when there was a poll or a referendum to go vote for. At school it was often more than just memorizing notions. The system of the compulsory education has always been ok in Italy, at least until some time ago. Also, our schools give an all-around education and this is can be frustrating, as we are not “specialized” in something, but at the same time it can be an advantage as it gives us the chance to “connect the dots”, explore different fields and not feeling completely lost if we have to deal with things which are slightly outside our sphere of competence.

I think also we are quite excellent problem solvers: we are pretty good and quick to respond to emergencies, it’s when we have to organize and plan that problems spring out. Living in a country where you have to deal with floods, earthquakes, avalanches  and crises of every sort, you just  get good with first aid stuff and also in surviving, I would say. We always survive in some way or another. This is, however, not ever a good sign as, little by little, we are becoming used to “tirare a campà” (surviving), rather than actually trying to make things better for everybody. Unfortunately in this country it is a continue struggle against everything – unbearable bureaucracy and taxes, lack of work, nepotism, corruption, extreme gerontocracy etc. – that when you wake up every morning you feel like you have to go fighting a war and trying to get home alive with your nerves intact. I might sound a little too dramatic, but, believe me, even going to the post office can be a challenge here. People fight this rather oppressive atmosphere by trying to have the zest for life – enjoying the simple things, family, friends, a good laugh, food, sex – or, on the negative side, by becoming sluggish in front the TV,  another big evil in our country. I believe that, sadly, TV played an important part in the corruption of our society. The advent of commercial TV caused a lot of problems as it was the one that started  bombarding us with silly and sexist content. The most vulnerable part of our society was tricked into put their brains to rest and becoming obsessed with certain “values” this kind of television was promoting: machismo, gaining insipid status symbols and appearance.

I will conclude this entry on a more light note focusing on our artistic side. It happened that foreigners told me things like you Italians are so effortlessly artistic, how and I started to think about it. I guess that we surely have a rich heritage concerning the arts – we have techniques and secrets passed down from generation to generation – but what truly makes the difference, in my opinion, is not the procedure, but the sentiment behind a work of art. Being more in touch with our emotions, more willing to show them in comparison to other cultures, is what has allowed us to produce some brilliant things that literally “speak” to people, I guess. Being a true artist, in my opinion, takes a lot of courage because you have to be willing to show your vulnerabilities. Put your fears, your worries and your passions on a silver platter and say to your public “here, have at it”. Obviously this doesn’t mean all Italians are artists, it’s just that, in an environment where it’s more acceptable to put your emotions in display, it’s more natural to explore your artistic side, express your feelings in your work and it takes less effort to break the barrier with the public, who will immediately connect with you.

 

In conclusion I would say that as Italians we are our first critics and detractors: you rarely hear an Italian saying good things about the motherland. You are allowed to say bad things about Italy as well, we just don’t take well criticism directed toward our way of life and our food. Don’t question it. JUST DON’T.


 

I hope you enjoyed this entry, feel free to share your thoughts: especially the Italians out there, let me know if you disagree or if you want to add something else. Let me thank Ange for the question, Silvia for her thoughtful observations and Elena and Elisa for their encouragement.

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13 thoughts on “Understanding the Italians: traits and peculiarities of one of the most loved and discussed people in the world.

  1. Interesting perceptions of a ‘native’. I’ve only been living in Italy for 3.5 years so my perceptions are still building, but I must agree with you, especially about helping communities and benefits of wearing your emotions on your sleeve (also regarding your health!). I also think that there are major differences among Italians themselves, depending how up and down you go. I have been thinking about writing a post on that myself, but not quite yet. Just some (intentionally exaggerated) observations: Italy is a closed environment. You don’t accept fashions, fads, trends and the like as fast as somebody else would. You cannot help but believe yours is the way to do it and often you are right. You are arrogant to the point of being adorable. 🙂 The way how you treat children has no known comparison: you build them up like small gods, serving them left and right, letting them ride in the trolley until they are old enough to play basketball. You tend not to walk, or swim, or exert yourselves too much in other ways. Instead you treat yourselves, do exactly what you wish to do and say exactly what you wish to say in every moment.

    I conclude that there are MANY valid reasons why I ended up here. Italy is good for you! 😀

    And as always, any such collection of impressions will say more about me – an eternally wistful Slovenian neighbour – than Italians. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughful observations! It’s always nice to hear the perceptions of a “third part” as being objective is not easy for a native!

      You’re right, I do think that wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeve is good for health: passions and frustration are to be expressed, otherwise you’ll live your life on an autopilot and you will be much more prone to feel depressed or have repressed anger.

      You’re perfectly right, it depends on the location as well, Italians are not all the same. A friend of mine, for example, does not agree on the “trust” part, she think Italians are trusting people. I came to the conclusion that it really depends on the local culture: a Roman may be trusting, a Sardinian or a Suedtiroler not so much.

      I also agree on the closed environment: as I said, the problem of trends is that they’re news and news are hard to be accepted in this gerontrocratic environment. Sometimes it can be good (especially when we are talking about awful fashion trends), other times it can be really bad.

      Concerning kids, things have dramatically changed in the last decade. Italian mothers have always been caring, but lately things are a bit out of control. I have a friend who is a teacher and she told me kids are less and less indipendent as years pass by. Mothers probably feel guilty because they have to work and so they are clingy and they spoil them too much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s very true that you rarely hear an Italian saying good things about the motherland – my husband is Italian, and he criticises it like crazy, BUT he is very, very proud to call himself Italian, at the same time! Complex – patriotic, but not. The TV thing is true. I notice that Italians now have it on a lot, even when eating dinner, and a lot of it is crap. It seems to be either shows or pompous political debate. But I love Italy and Italians and all their idiosyncrasies; it’s my favourite country, before my own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we truly hate how things work here (like bureaucracy, the judicial system and the general lack of organization), but we’re truly proud of our cultural and historical heritage. My guess, at least.

      Yeah, Italian media are the worst *sigh*

      Ah, you married an Italian! Do you speak some of our language? Can I ask you where are you from? *me curious*

      I guess it’s like when we have to deal with people: we love the idiosyncratic or controversial ones. Dull stuff is not appealing 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello, I’m English, but I lived in Campobasso then in Milan from 1996-2004 (I was an English teacher!). I met the husband in Milan. We now live in Dublin. I agree totally about the pride in the cultural, historical and aesthetic (and culinary) heritage; if I were Italian I’d be proud of all that too. I speak and read Italian although my speaking’s a bit rusty

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I see, that’s interesting! I’ve heard of several English/Italian couples, I guess it’s a nice combo ;D

        Thanks for following me and sorry for my English, mistakes are behind the corner sometimes 😟

        Like

  3. I think the passion in all things artistic and aesthetic is quite obvious to the lay observer. What I find so amazing is how, despite all being Europeans, the level of trust is so varied from country to country. I learnt on my trip this year that Scandinavians are the most trusting and trustworthy people on the planet (this phenomenon struck me so acutely that I even wrote about it), and yet you also concur that Italians have one of the lowest rates of societal trust… Very thought-provoking indeed! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there is some sort of misconception around the world about Europe: it is always depicted as a single unity, but the truth is it’s only a geographical and monetary union that we have at the moment. Also the geographical union is only seen in atlases and not really “felt”, I don’t know if you get what I mean. We are thousands of peoples with different traits,cultures and traditions and sometimes it’s hard to have a “union” inside a single country. So I let you imagine how difficult it is to unify an entire continent :/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Totally! Europe is no more than a geographic figure of speech. I do feel that Europeans from different countries identify with their own country rather than as a collective. Best not to generalise or stereotype 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ciao Sara, I might not be the best person to hear from, as I admit that I yet still have so so many to learn about Italy and Italian people. But since I visited and experienced a bit of Italy I possibly could be of some help.

    Well I admit that I experienced both something positive and negative (I would love to be honest here!) the negative thing is the owner who let me borrow his house. : This Italian guy who is from Napoli, living in Roma was a big liar, where he told me how he would allow me to meet local people or if anything happens to me he would gladly help me out ; however in reality that was not the case, – He did not introduce anyone unless I walked to the local bar at 11 pm alone where he worked, on top of all that he slept during daytime where I needed some help with my trip. I left earlier than I planned but he did not pay me back. Which was the shocking event as I didn’t know much about Italian people in person until then. So i got the impression where Italian people can be not trustworthy.

    But I found something positive, which is again, people. I had no choice but met people from there through the Internet who are a girl from Firenze and man from Torino, both Italians, they were really helpful to me during my trip, the girl showed me around while I visited Florence, and the guy helped me A LOT when I had to deal with my owner issue that I wrote the above. They made my trip better, and I got the impression where Italian people are welcoming and kindhearted. While I stopped by the gelato shop the staffs friendly talked to me by saying ciao bella, (they made me smile), when I wore kimono Italian people stopped and talked to me a lot, which didn’t happen in Germany! I thought you all are outgoing, which I love.

    I would love to admire you all still remaining such a beautiful art, architecture, people. I understood that you Italians are critics but I want you all to know that there are people who admire your culture and people from abroad. The country itself is still new but the history you have is amazing and should be proud of it. As a person who is from a country that has long history behind, I know the burden of it, too. But hey, all we have to do is that ‘Italian analytical mind’ using our brain and do what we think we can do hehe. We Japanese need that part, as we stopped thinking of things the whole in the society. We are now trying to introduce the process to think logically deeply in the education. I hope it works. I look up to you in this regard. 🙂

    I still don’t feel like I have written down enough about what I feel yet, but I really hope this would help you in some way. I will let you know if there’s something I need to add to! 🙂 Excuse me for my looong comment. I wish you a Merry Christmas, and happy holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Saki, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, you have been so kind to explain you pov! It’s very helpful, thank you ❤

      I’m so sorry you experienced this when in Rome 😦 Unfortunately a lot of shopkeepers and hotel owners try to scam tourists (not only in Rome) =_= This also happens with Italian tourists: the difference is that, knowing the language, we can protest and fight back. I find unacceptable, though, that people who are involved in hospitality act in this awful way…meh.

      Yeah, I think there’s definitely a dichotomy: rude and deceitful people versus helpful and kind people.

      Thanks so much for your words Saki and happy holidays!! ❤❤I had a lovely Christmas today, thanks ❤

      Like

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