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OPINION: Why north-south stereotypes aren't offensive to most Italians

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
OPINION: Why north-south stereotypes aren't offensive to most Italians
Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

Far from causing offence, the regional clichés that persist in Italy help us appreciate - and laugh about - our cultural differences, says Silvia Marchetti.

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After some time in Italy, foreigners realize that there are many regional clichés among Italians, with persistent stereotypes depending on which part of the country they come from. 

I call this the ‘Tale of two Italys’, which can be summed up as the ‘hard working’ north versus the ‘lazy’ south.

While many may assume that such clichés would be offensive, they’re actually very colorful and tell us a lot about a country with such diverse culture and history.

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How Italians from different areas perceive each other is incredibly illustrative, and can be enlightening for foreigners, revealing Italy’s multifarious traditions and nuances in regional cultures.

I’m a living mix of stereotypes due to my heritage: my mom hails from northern Piedmont while my dad is Roman-Sicilian, and when they quarrel they occasionally relate their contrasts to regional differences.

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When I visit my northern relatives they start calling me ‘La Romana’, joking about how we Romans are stuck up and feel superior to other Italians just because we live in the capital.

In return, I’d call them ‘polentoni’, a term which doesn’t just nod to their region’s polenta-based diet, but suggests that they suffer from an inferiority complex. And we’d start laughing.

I discovered that anyone living below Florence is considered by some northerners to be a ‘terrun’ - meaning a sunburned, ignorant, poor farmer who works the land (terra) and gets his hands dirty.

My grandma from Cuneo had a saying: “Below Florence, Italy no longer exists” (in Italian it even rhymes: ‘Da Firenze in giù l’Italia non c’e più’). 

‘Terrun’ used to be derogatory and offensive in the past, when southerners flocked to the richer north in search of a job in the many companies there. But it is no longer perceived as a class marker by the new generations, and is usually used in jest.

Back in the 1950s, southern immigrants working at big companies such as Fiat in Turin were all called ‘Napuli’, even if they weren’t from Naples but hailed from Calabria or Puglia. 

Today many Piedmont families have southern origins but have now blended in and become residents, complete with Piedmontese accents.

On the other hand, southerners often call northerners ‘polentoni’ (polenta-eaters).

‘Polentone’ has come to indicate a particular northern archetype as perceived by many southerners: someone who is slow in motion, dense in thought, a bit obtuse.

Stereotypically, southerners have also widely considered people from the wealthy north as extremely punctual, boring, stressed-out, workaholics who are cold and distant, with little sense of humour and a strong attachment to their ‘fabbrichette’ (little businesses) as if this were their family. 

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The Milanese would hit back by replying that it’s only thanks to their daily hard work if Italy’s economic engine rolls on while the loud, superstitious southerners spend the day laughing, joking about life, eating huge meals with big families, snoozing and not taking anything seriously.

These cliches persist. A recent survey by think tank Eurispes found that 52 percent of Italians believe northerners are work-focused and 62 percent say that they are “cold and distant”. 

Meanwhile, 25 percent admitted that they think southerners are “ignorant” and “uncivil”, though the majority did not agree that they are lazy work-wise, and consider them to be generous.

Such stereotypes are no longer taken seriously or seen as offensive by most, but rather as a way to tease, or spice up conversations with irony. They’re also a reflection of Italy’s campanilismo (the art of always cheering for one's own region or town).

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I think these stereotypes enrich Italian culture. And there is some degree of truth to these clichés - my parents do indeed have an opposite sense of humour (though my mom has very little, I must admit).

And the ‘workaholic’ northern regions, led by Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna, account for Italy’s largest chunk of GDP (40 percent). 

This is, after all, where 85 percent of small and medium enterprises are located, representing the core of Italy’s industrial system.

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The Genoese and Venetians are perceived by other Italians as quite stingy when it comes to money, and this could be explained by their merchant history (though I have met some very stingy Sicilians, too, even though they usually embody the ideal of Italian hospitality).

But of course, some clichés are not true. If so many southerners migrated north over the centuries, and still do, it means they’re eager to work. 

According to one recent study, southern people are the most active in relocating for work when compared to northerners, and have a stronger work ethic, targeted at self-fulfilment.

Other stereotypes border on myth: people from Vicenza are often jokingly, or even affectionately, called ‘magnagati’ (cat-eaters), as it is said that during past famines they would feed on cats - though even if they might have done so once or twice, it is certainly no longer a culinary practice.

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One true cliché is how people living on islands see mainland Italy. Sardinians and Sicilians, particularly those coming from small satellite isles, call the rest of their own country beyond the sea ‘the continent’ - as if it were another universe which they distrust to a certain degree.

It has always amazed me how an Alto Adige native has more in common with an Austrian due to their same cultural and linguistic heritage than with a Sicilian, who given past Arab invasions of Sicily might be more similar (even physically) to a Tunisian or Libyan.

Stereotypes reflect our economic, social and cultural territorial contrasts in an amusing and ironic way, showing off the richness of Italy. They’re a bit like proverbs.

And at the end of the day, we’re all Italian.

Do you agree or disagree with the opinions expressed in this article? Leave a comment below to share your views.

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Anonymous 2022/11/26 10:43
This article seems to consider that since some terms are used at times in ways that are teasing and “harmless” because the person using them considers them only to be playful, that they are acceptable. That’s actually not the case. Even the Accademia della Crusca (the authority on the Italian language) mentions this “lighter” use, but stresses that some of these words have a markedly negative connotation. https://accademiadellacrusca.it/it/consulenza/da-dove-arriva-questo-terrone/1333 The fact that people in the south do not even use the word Terrone should make that point a little clearer that it’s actually not acceptable even when joking. The author can joke in her own family about it, as I witness my own do (my husband from the north and my daughter born in Le Marche, which, to him, makes her from the south), but I’d never dream of seeing them utter such things outside of this sphere with one another, because they know it’s offensive and wrong. I suppose a line must be drawn instead to how Italians tease one another in their intimate sphere to what Italians consider as acceptable as terminology to define the characteristics and qualities of people from different regions. Of course Italians are aware of vast cultural differences in various parts of the country, and in a country where for decades specific ministries and extraordinary interventions were created to deal with “il Mezzogiorno” as a problem of lack of development, the “laborious north” is largely a political and social construct about the (mis)management of resources and lack of infrastructure for various reasons. There are quite a few reasons why one part has more development and another has less, and people like Barzini, and especially, Edward Banfield, have analysed the roots of these reasons, but they are not fixed unless people continue to project the differences as intrinsic, and do so through language and stereotypes.
Anonymous 2022/11/25 17:23
Thank you for this piece Silvia. I venture to the North of Italy often to see my cousins from Napoli and Basilicata - who now live in Milan, Bergamo & Parma - and married into those regions. Awesome perspective.

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