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

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

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.

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.

READ ALSO: Why are Italy’s disappearing dialects so important?

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. 

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).

READ ALSO: Why Italians have a hard time learning English – and how things could improve

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.

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.

READ ALSO: The 11 maps that help explain Italy today

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.

Member comments

  1. 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.
    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.

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Giorgia Meloni’s party will likely win the elections – but will it last?

While the far-right Brothers of Italy party is almost guaranteed to lead the next government, it may not survive Italy's political system for very long, writes Billy Briggs.

Giorgia Meloni's party will likely win the elections - but will it last?

When Italy last held an election in 2018, the Fratelli d’Italia – Brothers of Italy – were minnows, taking a mere 4.4 percent of the vote. Now, ahead of the 2022 vote on September 25th, opinion polls suggest the far-right group is on course for a historic victory that would make them the largest party in Italy.

If this comes to pass, the Brothers of Italy would enter government at the head of a three-party coalition (already agreed with Matteo Salvini’s the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia). Party leader Giorgia Meloni would be prime minister.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

This is significant because Brothers of Italy’s historic lineage traces back to the neo-fascists of the post-war period. Indeed, its very symbol (a tricoloured flame) is the same as that of its predecessor, the National Alliance, and of its predecessor, the Italian Social Movement – which was founded by veterans of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic.

The result of this election is already considered a foregone conclusion. That is not just because the margin of difference in polling is so great, but also because the parties of the centre and left have failed to construct a pre-electoral coalition.

In Italy, this is a form of political suicide. The electoral system – part majoritarian and part proportional – favours those parties which make pre-electoral pacts and form large coalitions. Yet, the Democrats rejected a pact with the Five Star Movement because of its role in bringing down the government of Mario Draghi.

Leader of Italian far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) Giorgia Meloni, addresses supporters during a rally in Milan on September 11th. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

The centrist “third pole” created by two smaller parties then rejected the Democrats because they were flirting with the Green Left. This fragmentation means not just that the right-wing coalition is unsurpassable but that it could, with over 40 percent of the vote, secure more than two-thirds of the seats in the Italian parliament.

Alarm bells ringing

A majority of that size would enable the government to amend the constitution and introduce a directly elected presidency – an idea on which all three parties in the coalition seem to agree. When a politician of the far right like Meloni speaks of replacing parliamentary democracy with a “democracy of the people”, it sends a shiver down the spines of many Italians.

Fears of a return to the fascism of the past may nevertheless be overstated. A detailed look at any policy area (European integration, migration, the energy crisis, Ukraine) reveals significant differences between the three parties of the right. It is not at all clear that they are capable of producing coherent government, let alone see through on a radical constitutional overhaul.

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

The positions adopted by the Brothers of Italy also often seem incompatible, if not contradictory with each other. This is because Meloni is speaking to two audiences. One needs reassuring that she will not be too extreme if elected. The other comprises party members, militants and sympathisers who need to hear about ideologically motivated changes to come, and who are more interested in the tone and big picture than the details.

Europe and Russia

Meloni’s position on Europe is another cause for concern. Although she declares herself to be committed to the EU, she also wants to review various financial arrangements with the bloc. And the other parties in her coalition are well known for their eurosceptism. Their programme (“For Italy”) says it wants a more political and less bureaucratic EU, and there is concern as to what this might mean.

A Meloni-led government also brings potential ramifications for the sanctions on Russia and the arming of Ukraine. Both Europe and Moscow are wondering if the election outcome might see a change in the Italian government’s position that undermines Europe’s united front. For all Meloni’s apparent commitment to the European position, Salvini and Berlusconi are sceptics, if not outright opponents.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

The American National Security Council recently revealed evidence that Russia secretly channels funds to a large network of (as yet unnamed) parties (including Italian ones), in order to disrupt democratic processes and garner support for Moscow. This has fuelled suspicions that the parties of the right may all be involved.

Meanwhile, Italy finds itself in a significantly deteriorating economic scenario and is especially exposed to the Russian gas crisis. The IMF has estimated that an embargo on Russian gas would see an economic contraction in Italy of over 5 percent – higher than all other EU nations but Hungary, Slovakia and Czechia.

Matteo Salvini (League) and Giorgia Meloni (Borthers of Italy)

Political differences between Giorgia Meloni (Brothers of Italy) and Matteo Salvini (League) raise doubts over the stability of the far-right bloc. Photo by Luca PRIZIA / AFP

The country will also be affected by the European Central Bank’s decision to scale back its stimulus programme by raising interest rates and stopping the purchase of national bonds. Small wonder that investors have been selling off Italian bonds and hedge fund investors have been betting against them on a mammoth scale.

The markets, in short, are worried, although they are, as it were, building in expectations of a right-wing victory, which may therefore offset a dramatic post-election fall.

Deja vu?

It should be noted that Italy has been in a similar political position before. There were widespread fears ahead of the 2018 general election about what would happen if the populists came to power – and, sure enough, they did. The Five Star Movement, with an extraordinary 32.7% of the vote, formed a government with Salvini’s League.

Yet, the government proved to be hopelessly divided (some would say incompetent) and collapsed a year later. On today’s opinion polling evidence, Five Star is now a relatively minor political force.

True, what makes 2022 different is that this will be the first time the heirs of neo-fascism have come to power. But it should not be forgotten that Italy’s political system is difficult to monopolise, and even more difficult to reform. In short, the jury on the threat represented by Meloni is still out.

This article was written by Billy Briggs, a lecturer at Wigan University, and was originally published on The Conversation.