Ten things Italians do that make foreigners feel awkward

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Ten things Italians do that make foreigners feel awkward

Moving to a new country makes for a lot of new experiences and embarrassing moments, from language mix-ups to dating faux pas to rules about which pasta shape goes with which sauce. Here are ten Italian habits that can create awkwardness for the uninitiated foreigner.


1) Hanging up on you

Photo: Pexels

The first time you experience 'lo squillo' - an Italian habit of calling someone, letting the phone ring two or three times and then hanging up - you'd be forgiven for feeling slightly unloved or assuming you're the victim of some practical joke. Actually, this is a common practice among young Italians and is a way of letting you know they've arrived at your meeting point.

In Italy, fixed-minute or pay-as-you-go contracts are much more common than in many other countries, so the 'squillo' is a handy way of avoiding cutting into your month's allowance, and once you realize what's going on, you'll likely embrace the concept. Plus, it's a fun word to say.

2) Pushing into a queue

Photo: Alfred Lui/Flickr

If you’re from a culture where the queue is sacred (we're looking at you, Brits and Scandinavians), adjusting to the Italian system - or lack of one - can be alarming. At bus stops, bars and bakeries, you're more likely to come across a chaotic cluster than a nice, ordered queue. Try not to let your stress get the better of you, embrace the Italian attitude - and maybe push back if you have to.

3) Criticising your eating habits

Ah, Italy. The national passion for food and drink is one of the big draws of the country, and it can't be denied that they've got a lot to be proud of. But the rules surrounding food and drink are so strict and so numerous that it can be overwhelming for a newbie.

READ MORE: 17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy



While we’re always open to learning about foreign food, it’s disheartening to receive a lecture when you feel in the mood for a cappuccino after lunch (cue gasps from Italian coffee purists), or to have flatmates critique every dish you try to make and poke fun at your national cuisine.

4) ... and your outfit choices

To fit in in Italy, you'll be needing plenty of neutrals. Photo: Pexels

Before you've even opened your mouth, you might feel like you stand out as a foreigner in Italy due to your clothes, as if you're the only one who wasn't told the dress code. 

Italians dress for the season, not the weather. This means that going out with bare legs is practically unheard of outside the months of June, July and August - even on a hot day. As a general rule, you're less likely to see loud prints or 'statement' pieces and far more likely to see tailored, classic styles. And for women, it's practically unheard of to leave the house with wet hair, so if you leave the house in a rush before drying it, you might elicit a few confused glances.

5) Directness

Photo: Sharon Mollerus/Flickr

Come to think of it, it’s not just food and clothing. Whatever the topic, if an Italian disagrees with you on something, they’re likely to let you know in no uncertain terms. Even when done with affection, it can catch newcomers off guard.

Once you get used to the no-nonsense approach though, it's refreshing how people feel able to let their emotions show rather than resorting to fake politeness or passive aggressiveness in order to avoid a scene. Re-adjusting to niceties back home starts to feel frustrating once you've been here long enough.

6) Disregarding your personal space

Don't be surprised if a colleague or friend leans in for a kiss on the cheek - and definitely don't flinch. Photo: Adam McGuffie/Flickr

Whether they're whacking you in the face with a particularly expressive hand gesture, or simply being touchy-feely and going in for a hug two minutes after meeting you, Italians aren't shy about getting up close and personal. Even in more formal business contexts, it's normal to touch people on the arm and shoulder, and if you've got small children, expect to be stopped regularly for strangers to fuss over them.

7) Not tipping

The downside of no tipping culture is that you end up with piles of change you don't know what to do with. Photo: Pexels

Particularly for Americans, the lack of a tipping culture can be confusing. When you want to show your appreciation for a delicious and good value meal, leaving a few extra coins can feel natural, but in Italy it's not necessary - and you've probably already paid for service in the 'coperto' (cover charge) if you're somewhere slightly up-market.

8) The bidet

An image that strikes fear into the heart of many. Photo: derek rose/Flickr

This piece of plumbing is regarded by many foreigners with an air of suspicion, but it's present in almost every single Italian home. It's used for washing your genitals after going to the toilet, and is supposedly more hygienic than just using toilet paper, but if you're bewildered by the whole concept, don't worry - nobody's going to force you to use it.

9) The driving

Photo: Chriscom/Flickr

From Italian host families driving on the wrong side of the road to make an English guest ‘feel at home’ (yes, it happens) to the persistent overuse of the horn and failure to acknowledge pedestrians, driving is perhaps the most stressful part of Italian life to adjust to and is not recommended for the faint-hearted. If you're determined to give it a go, make sure you read this guide beforehand.


10) Persistent flirting

Photo: Pexels

If you're female, expect to be on the receiving end of a few ciao bella's and to be addressed as bellissima or principessa (princess) when you're out and about. This might seem embarrassing to anyone from a more reserved country, but you don't need to read too much into it most of the time - they're simply being polite.

Men and women can both expect potential partners to be more forward when it comes to dating, and when an Italian takes a shine to someone, they are unlikely to 'play it cool' and will often shower you with romantic gestures. If the feeling's mutual, great, but if not, it can be an uncomfortable situation. Even if you've explained you aren't interested or are in a relationship, you might have to be quite firm in order to get the point across (see number five on this list). 

If you've encountered any other awkward situations in Italy, or aspects of the culture that leave you baffled, let us know!

This article was originally published in 2019

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Italy




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