There’s something that has always shocked me when I was living in the UK, and it was being mistaken for a rude person. It was surprising to see that, no matter how much effort I put into being polite and kind, I would somehow come across as rude for some unknown reason.
Well… unknown back then. It may come as a surprise to you, but I had never stopped to think about what the British culture considered polite and what the Italian culture considered polite.
Politeness and rudeness change across cultures. We all have our own perception of what’s polite and what is not. Of what’s acceptable and what is not. Of what we can publicly say and what we’d rather keep to ourselves.
Culture is so embedded into us that we’re rarely (or almost never) aware of why we do what we do and why something sounds rude to us. We just take it for granted.
And I’m sure it has happened to you to some extent during your first visits to Italy. Even though you’ve always been fascinated by the Italian culture, there is still something that you might find odd, rude, or unusual. Whether in the behavior or in the way of speaking.
And maybe you’ve found yourself judging the people around you (or even all the Italians). And it’s ok, it’s absolutely normal. Let me tell you why.
If you have an idea embedded in your mind about what’s polite and acceptable and what is not, you will find it extremely hard to accept that other behaviors can be acceptable and polite as well. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and it’s the stress that we all experience when we’re trying to hold two contradicting pieces of information in our minds, all at the same time.
To give you a practical example, if you come from a culture where interrupting someone is rude, you will have a hard time accepting that an Italian person interrupting you or someone else is polite. Because, in your mind, interrupting people is rude and has no other explanation. This is when you start to experience this type of stress.
And when this happens, because the situation is too stressful to handle, your mind goes back to its original black-or-white thinking, instead of making you think that, maybe, there’s another possible explanation for that behavior.
And, really, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just how the brain works. And we all have to “train ourselves” to recognize when we’re experiencing this type of stress.
But another powerful tool to mitigate this culture shock is knowledge. Knowledge is power, as the old (and much loved by me) saying goes.
If you learn about Italian habits and about the Italian communication style, you will be more prepared and it will be easier for you to spot misunderstandings and moments of possible embarrassment.
Not that misunderstandings and embarrassment won’t occur at all. They will, but you will know how to spot them quickly and second guess your initial labeling thought.
So, in the spirit of the knowledge is power philosophy, here are 3 Italian speaking habits that might come across as rude but are actually generally accepted in the Italian culture.
Being loud and talking over each other
Much to your surprise, this is actually normal and accepted in the Italian culture. Speaking loudly and talking over each other are not a sign or rudeness.
First of all, Italians sound loud because of the nature of the language. Italian is a vocalic language, which is why it sounds louder compared to a language like English. It may give you the impression that Italians are aggressive when they actually aren’t.
And as for speaking over each other, this is something that in Italy is seen as an act of contribution.
Being “too” personal
For an Italian it’s absolutely normal to be open about their physical health and their mood. You will easily hear sentences like:
- Ho dormito veramente male (I had a really bad night of sleep.)
- Oggi sto malissimo. (I feel really sick today.)
- Ho mal di testa. (I have a headache.)
Being “personal” is socially accepted in Italy, so don’t be surprised if an Italian person shares such “intimate details”. To us, they’re not intimate at all.
Making straightforward requests
In italy, requests can be direct and polite at the same time. Even without saying “per favore”. Sometimes, translating request from English into Italian while keeping the English structure can make these request sound too cheesy. At least to an Italain ear.
Take, for example, a request like “can you pass me the bread, please?”
If you translate it word by word, in Italian you would get something like: “mi puoi passare il pane, per favore?”
Which is ok from a grammar and structure point of view. But from a communication point of view it can really be too much.
Believe it or not, you can even just say “mi passi il pane?” (do you pass me the bread?). This is a litteral and quite horrible translation, just to give you an idea of how the Italian sentence strucutre would be in this type of request.
How do you know that the request is actually a polite one?
By listening to the tone of the voice. In Italian, it’s the voice tone that tells you whether someone is being polite or rude.
So, take some time to get used to that and you will see that these requests that are somehow “scaring” are actually polite requests.
To sum up
Concepts like polite, rude, acceptable and unacceptable change across cultures
The Italian langage sounds loud because it’s a vocalic language. Therefore, Italians can sound aggressive when they actually aren’t.
Interrupting each other, in Italy, is acceptable and it can be a sign of contribution during a conversation.
Requests in Italian can be both direct and polite at the same time. What tells you the difference between a polite request and a rude one is the tone of the voice.
Balboni, Paolo E. “Problemi Di Comunicazione Interculturale Tra Italiani e Parlanti Di Italiano in Nord America.” Italica 78, no. 4 (2001): 445–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/3656075.
Hofstede, Geert, 1928-2020, Gert Jan. Hofstede and Michael. Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind : Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival. New York ; London: McGraw-Hill, 2010
Weinberg Gabriel, McCann Lauren, Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, Penguin Random House LLC, 2019