Customs and etiquette in Italy

Customs and etiquette in Italy

Italy has a cultural code of etiquette, which mainly governs traditions and social behaviour, and is important in the terms of reputation and consideration. Italian etiquette is mainly based on European etiquette, yet has some slight variations. With such regional differences, Italy does not have set customs, and something that could be considered rude in one region may be, in fact, polite in another. However, by generalisation, Italians are well known to strongly emphasize the importance of family and friends, closeness to their particular church or religion, and attention to dressing-up and being smart - "la bella figura", or the good impression.[1]


General etiquette

Meeting and socialising


  • Italians tend to be warm and enthusiastic when meeting people, even for the first time, yet decency and formality is appreciated.
  • When giving a hand shake, Italians look directly in the eyes.
  • Kissing twice on different cheeks is very common in Italy, yet varies by region; in Northern Italy, only friends and relatives are kissed, and men only kiss very close friends or relatives, whilst acquaintances are given a handshake; in Southern Italy, both strangers, friends, relatives, and even people of the same gender usually share a kiss.
  • It is considered rude to call someone by their first name until they specifically say so.
  • It is considered impolite to ask a woman, usually in her adulthood, her age.
  • First impression is very important when one meets a person.
  • The way one expresses oneself is an easy way of giving away their social and cultural status.
  • Several Italians have social cards, which are bigger than business ones, and have phone numbers and addresses.

Donating and receiving gifts

  • Giving flowers is a less common form of gift in Italy, yet it is polite to do so, especially if you are invited to the house of someone you know little.
  • Chrystanthemums are symbols of sorrow and death, and are only given in funerals.
  • It is, notably for the more superstitious, considered rude to give yellow flowers, since they symbolise anger and jealousy.
  • Italians pay a lot of attention to their gifts; a good quality gift (good chocolate, high-class wine) will definitely please the host far more.
  • One is expected to open the gift immediately after having received it, and pay attention to it (leaving it in a corner is considered impolite and a sign of disrespect)
  • Wrapping gifts in black is reserved for funerals or sad situations, and it is considered tactless to wrap a gift in that colour for a normal situation.
  • Wrapping gifts in purple is considered a sign of bad luck.
  • Red flowers are only to be given in romantic or wife-to-husband events, and to bring red flowers in a normal celebration is considered over-the-top (red flowers indicate love and secrecy).


  • Invitations should be made via post, and generally formal ones should be handwritten - unless it is a very informal event between close friends or relatives, it is not considered advisable to invite someone via e-mail or similar forms of communication.
  • When one arrives, one should show attention to the host. Sitting down or just getting along with one's things at another's house is considered highly impolite.
  • When invited to a house, even if the host calls it an informal event, stylish, yet casual clothes are appreciated; a simple elegant shirt and trousers/skirt for a woman, and a smart-casual outfit for males. Over-dressing for an informal event is considered vulgar and kitsche.
  • Even though arriving on time is appreciated, exact punctuality is not totally necessary; arriving 5-15 at most minutes late for an invitation is generally fine, and do not arrive any more than 30 minutes late for a party or a big gathering.
  • Bringing gifts to a formal meal, even of close friends, is, highly considered. Wine, chocolates and food are the most appreciated, and flowers are considered too.
  • If flowers are delivered, they must arrive on the exact day of the meal.
  • When one is invited to the house of an acquaintance, one should expect to invite them to your own house or for dinner, yet should usually wait for at least a week or two.

Table etiquette and manners

  • It is considered rude, even more so for an acquaintance, to sit down in any seat before one has been invited to do so.
  • The table manners are the Continental ones, in which the knife is in the right hand and the fork is in the left when eating.
  • Unlike in most of Europe, when eating dishes which do not require a knife (pasta, risotto, soup), it is not necessary to eat with a knife as well, and scooping up with a fork, if done in an appropriate manner, is considered equally polite.
  • The host/hostess is the one to lead in the meal - when they sit down, the guest should do so too, and when they get up, so should the invitee.
  • The guest of honour should respond to the toast.
  • Women, and rarely men, take toasts.
  • Leaving a very small amount of food on one's plate is considered acceptable - large amounts is considered a sign if disrespect.
  • When eating, one should make sure to keep their plate tidy and not make it messy.
  • The guest should ask the host/hostess to help with the cleaning, yet, in politeness, the host/hostess should decline the offer.
  • Unlike in parts of Europe, foods such as chips (fries), cheese, olives and small snacks are still eaten with one's knife and fork, and not their hands.
  • One should drink small portions of wine. Red wine is used to accompany meat and foods such as pasta, risotto and soup, white wine for fishes, desserts, fruit, starters, cheeses and snacks.
  • One should never take big helpings at the start; one should take a medium amount and then ask for seconds if necessary. This is also a sign of appreciation.

Dressing and clothing

  • Italians tend to be very fussy regarding clothing, and often dress up formally even for everyday events or necessities.
  • When one goes out, they should, even for a minor thing, dress up reasonably - normal clothes, and for a woman, a little bit of jewelry of make-up are considered to be polite. Dressing up poorly is considered to be vulgar, especially in a public place.
  • If invited to a special event, one should put on their best clothes.
  • Italians tend to follow the latest trends - the more up-to-date one's clothes look to the trendiest fashions, the more highly they are socially regarded.
  • Italians commonly judge people on their clothes - a person wearing business attire is likely to be a businessman, a woman wearing designer clothes is likely to be upper-class, etc. If one wears shabby clothes, even if they are of high social status, most Italians will automatically judge the person to be lower-class, or at least to have poor taste.
  • There is considerable church-dressing etiquette in Italy - bare-backs, chests, knees and shoulders are considered offensive, not to mention unallowed. Men are required not to wear hats, whilst women can to a greater degree. Even though it is getting more and more outdated, notably in the South, some women still wear headgarments or veils into church.
  • Despite the way an Italian dresses is often used to convey their social status, it does not in all cases - even low-class people tend to have a few elegant clothes, and might be the first ones to wear them, thus it does not always allow a person to guess their class.


  • In Italy, people, children and adults alike, should treat their elders with respect.

Humour and jokes

  • In Italy, jokes and humour are generally appreciated. This having been said, rude or offensive humour, and jokes during sad occasions such as funerals are considered inappropriate and tactless.

Business etiquette


Socialisation and doing business

  • Italians tend to do business with the people they are closest to and respect the most, notably Northern Italians, who treat workers who they have not met with slight caution - gaining a boss' trust is essential for a person to advance in their career.
  • Having a friend of a boss introduce them to him/her is advisable, since bosses will trust that the friend will provide him/her with a good worker.
  • Working in an office, and building a relationship with other employees goes a long way in a person's career - secluding oneself, despite good work, might make his/her chances of promotion less.
  • It is considered reasonable for workers to get to know each other and share information about their lives, families, friends etc.
  • Most Italian workers are intuitive and can see if a person is doing their job properly or not.
  • When applying for a job, Italians judge first appearances very much, thus the impression a person gives is very important.
  • Asking questions and getting to know the business surroundings is considered advisable in advancing a person's career.
  • Italians generally enjoy to speak and express themselves at work - even though e-mails are becoming more popular, expressing one's point by speaking is generally better in creating relationships.

Punctuality and attendance

  • In Northern Italy punctuality is very important - arriving late at work is considered bad. Speed is also essential, and Northerners tend to want their work done quickly, well and without delay.
  • In Southern Italy, even though punctuality is still relatively important, arriving slightly late at work is not a problem. Showing oneself to be efficient and quick is good, yet speed is slightly less prioritised than in the North, and people generally take a slightly lighter approach to work.
  • Attendance in Northern Italy is very important - workers should show themselves to be willing to take on any challenges, and to be ever present to work when required.
  • Whilst attendance is also highly regarded in Southern Italy, it is taken slightly more leisurely - work is done in appropriate amounts, and spending time with family, relations, friends and taking days off is not considered poor attendance, unlike in Northern Italy.

Negotiation in business

  • Northern Italians tend to be sharper and crisper when doing and negotiating business - they will look directly in the eyes, not waste time, and will keep it short.
  • Southern Italians tend to take a slightly lighter approach to negotiation. They will negotiate, yet might spend more time talking, and might also ask questions about other factors of the business.
  • Italians will do business with important people - age is also an important factor, since elderly members of a company are treated with far more respect than younger ones.
  • Haggling over things and ideas is very present in Italy - and it can last very long.
  • Expression and being vibrant while doing business is considered - arguments and shouting can erupt very quickly, and whilst one should not be rude, showing passion for something will make one's reputation better.
  • Using high-pressure tactics in sales is generally discouraged.

Etiquette in business and meetings

  • Politeness, respect and formality are highly regarded in business - being rude and tactless is generally badly considered.
  • Making appointments is necessary, and they should usually be done two, at most three, weeks in advance.
  • Decisions are barely ever reached in meetings - meetings should be times when people discuss a topic, more rather than get to a confirmed decision.
  • Interruption is common, yet one should do it as little as possible.
  • Shouting appropriately to get one's voice heard is very common, and is not considered rude, if done politely and in measure.
  • The skill at several languages, notably English and Italian, yet others, is looked-upon positively.
  • Material made should be printed in both English and Italian.
  • During Ferragosto (mid-August break) several companies and shops close down, as workers leave for the official annual summer holidays - although some, more important businesses, do remain open (notably in the South), several close and only re-open in early September.
  • Discussions and business meetings may be very off-track - agendas are usually made so that some line is observed, yet new issues are usually raised alongside other ones
  • Meetings are usually ways in which bosses get to meet and know their employees better, thus gaining a circle of trust.
  • If one is not fluent in the language, having an interpreter is generally a good idea. Even though, notably in Northern Italy, several Italians do speak English, many still do not, and having an interpreter generally avoids the chance of confusion.
  • E-mails may be used to confirm meetings, yet letters and faxes are preferred.

Outfits and ways of dressing

  • Dressing well for work is, virtually, obligatory. Even though there may be no written dress-code, wearing anything inappropriate is seen very badly, and may result in one's boss asking the person to present themselves better in the future.
  • Extravagance is frowned upon, and smart, simple business clothes are optimal.
  • Men should wear a black/grey/blue or cold coloured jacket, a light-coloured shirt, with a tie, long, navy/black/grey trousers and black shoes.
  • Women should wear a similar jacket, knee-length cold-coloured skirt or long black trousers. Decently elegant dresses are similarly viewed as being fine.
  • Women and men alike may, and should, wear a few luxuries or accessories - an elegant watch for both sexes, and possibly a necklace, earrings and make-up for females.
  • Dresses should be long-sleeved, and miniskirts, t-shirts, Bermuda-shorts and similar attire are not generally considered appropriate.
  • Clothes should be simple, cold colours - bright colours or vibrant patterns are less suitable.


  • When one meets a fellow colleague or boss for the first time, they should give them a handshake.
  • One should look their colleague in the eyes.
  • Friendliness and smiles go a long way, yet one still has to be polite, formal and appropriate.
  • Responsiveness and efficiency are generally esteemed.

Business cards

  • If one works for a business, they should at least have a business card.
  • These should contain name, address, profession, occupation, position, e-mail and fax address, and phone number.
  • One should generally exchange their business card once they have met a person.
  • Business cards should be written in Italian and English, especially if one works for a multi-national company.
  • One should also include their qualifications and degrees on business cards.


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