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If you read reviews of Italy, you will find that Italians are regarded as either very friendly and helpful or the opposite. Wherever you travel, there is always the possibility of meeting the local curmudgeon, but generally Italians are only rude to people who have offended them. Here are some tips to avoid giving offence. If you have had a bad experience, this might explain why!
1) Italy is one of the world's most visited countries and tourism is important for it. In some particular cities and spots you're likely to see just tourists and tourist-oriented realities around you, as if you were in a big resort. However, never forget that Italy is a country like all countries, with some 60,000,000 residents, its life and is activity, which can't absolutely be reduced to tourism. Like everywhere else, tourists are guests, not the focus of attention. Don't assume that every resident is a tourist information employee and don't expect that anyone you meet in the street should solve your problems or help you with your itineraries. Lots of them might be in a hurry or in a bad mood, or have something important to do, exactly as you when you are home. Some narrow streets or some ancient buildings that you may find delightfully quaint are in fact lived in and worked in, so pay attention not to be in the way looking around or taking pictures.
2) Learn some Italian. You do not need to be fluent in the language (although it helps!). Being able to say "Hello", "Goodbye", "Please" and "Thank you" will put you up one place in the respect scale; anyway, don't think it is enough; saying a long a complex speech in fluent English and adding "per favore" or "grazie" can't help anyone to understand your message and comes to sound patronising. Italian grammar is not easy, but learning some dozen words and making oneself understood saying isolate words is fairly easy.
If you are English mother tongue, keep in mind you had big luck, but don't take advantage of it. The knowledge of English is spread, not mandatory. If you absolutely want to speak English, always ask: "Parla inglese?" (or even in English "Do you speak English?") and wait for an answer, do not just start speaking English at people. Anyway, when you speak English with a local you'd better use basic words and expressions and articulate well.
Remember that the Italian language has various and very different accents changing in every area; the one people are accostumed to hear in movies is mostly a stereotype and (a much lighter version of it) can only be heard in some parts of the Deep South. If you stay in Rome for a few days and you think you can finally catch some Italian words, don't be discouraged when later in Venice or Naples you won't be able to: just give yourself sometime to get accostumed to that area peculiar accent!
3) Do not be loud in English. Most Italians, despite the stereotype, aren't that loud and therefore don't like vulgar people; tourists are guests, and are expected to behave politely. In spite of another stereotype, Italians never sing to themselves and usually regard it as total queerness.
4) Dress appropriately. Wandering around town dressed for the beach or running track is regarded as quite sloppy. Avoid the opposite extreme, too: dressing all time as if you were invited to a royal wedding will make you look like an object of amusement more than like an elegant person. Obviously fashions change and things vary: in spite of the clichés, lots of Italians usually wear confortable and not very formal clothes. T-Shirts, cheap jeans, sneakers, short trousers and sandals in the summer are much more accepted than one may think. Just wear sensible and, most importantly, clean clothing; as in the rest of the world, dirty looking people are avoided.
5) Acknowledge people. When you go into a shop or bar, say “buongiorno” ("good morning") or “buona sera” ("good evening") to the proprietor; however - keep in mind that Italians are reserved and do not commonly chat to strangers. People there can get uncomfortable or even feel threatened, when treated with too much familiarity by a stranger. Take it easy when talking with somebody, they will open to you as they will get to know you. Give respect and you will receive respect, be rude and expect to be treated rudely. You reap what you sow!
6) Never put your feet or shoes on a table or a chair. If you do, that seating place will be considered dirty, and rude. In the hottest days being barechested or barefoot is usually accepted in big open spaces like big parks (and on beaches of course), not at all walking down the street. In trains taking off one's shoes is fairly accepted, but some conservative people may find it out of place. And please, do not burp or fart in public, it is considered extremely rude. Also, loud swearing and drinking alcohol from a bottle while walking the street, is frowned upon. Most Italians like some alcohol, but usually avoid to get drunk. Public scenes of drunkenness are much less tolerated than in other countries. Italians expect to be respected and will respect you.
7) Be aware of regional sensibilities. Venetians have a semi-detached attitude to Italy and so do many Northerners, especially people from Lombardy. When in a place, do not praise too much other places of Italy and don't compare the place where you are with other ones. Saying something like "Verona looks like a little Rome" or "Siena is almost as beautiful as Florence" may sound quite offensive to some not very open-minded locals. Do not compare North and South, too: the "Southern Issue" is still a hot topic and, while Southern Italians might feel very upset, Northerners may involve you in a neverending conversation about how different the two poles of the country are. Romans seem to be the only exception - they're considered (and consider themselves) Central Italians and scorn both their Northern and Southern fellows; needless to say, this attitude makes all the others despise them. Some towns which share province borders are historical "enemies", the most famous rivalries in the country being the ones between the Tuscan towns of Pisa and Livorno, followed by Parma and Reggio Emilia, Bergamo and Brescia, Palermo and Catania... also, steer clear of politics (especially American foreign policy) and do not mention the war or other European countries like Germany or France, still considered by someone as enemies. Do not patronise the locals, they take great exception at it: Italy is the fifth industrialised country in the world and - along with Greece - the birthplace of Western civilisation.
8) Never assume that a business or restaurant accepts credit cards. Never assume that a shopkeeper will break a large bill for a small purchase. Always ask, and expect they may say "No". Carry small bills for small purchases.
9) Dining etiquette: make sure you understand the different levels of service at restaurants and cafes. The rules are pretty much the same throughout Italy - you either sit at a table and get waiter service, or stand at the bar to eat/drink or buy something to take away. The prices are different in each case. So learn some basics and avoid embarrassment. Dining in Venice is different from anywhere else in the country. There was a surcharge per person from 1.00 € to 2.50 € everywhere, in addition to a gratuity of 12-15%. For most of Italy, you tip if you want, but it is not expected, and not to the tune of 15-20% as in the USA.
By the way, as mentioned before - always greet the host/hostess with a pleasant "buongiorno" or "buonasera" before asking if they have a table for two. Even if they are busy, expediency is not prioritised over courtesy as it may be in the USA.
In most cafés, especially the not tourist-oriented ones, you are expected to go to the cash to pay immediately, then to bring the bartender your receipt and, when served, to drink or eat standing by the counter. In some little cafés tables to sit don't actually exist. In other ones, if you sit at a table and wait to be served, a surcharge is applied.
10) Dress well when dining out. That does not mean "dressing up": being respectful does not mean "fancy."
11) Shopkeepers will help one person at a time, first come-first served. Be patient! They are not ignoring you, they are lavishing attention on the previous customers. When it is your turn, they will lavish uninterrupted, undivided attention on you while others will wait - perhaps, for quite a while.
12) More on shopping: do not handle the produce! Tell the shopkeeper what you want. Same in clothing stores - it's not Walmart. Do not start riffling through a pile of neatly folded shirts or the staff will freak out! Tell them what size and colour you want, they will serve you. Most employees will know your size without your telling them.
13) If you get into conversation with Italians, one subject is to be avoided: the mafia. Foreigners tend to be fascinated by mafia movies, games and so on... but the mafia is a problem that causes many deaths per year. What you can expect when starting this subject is people feeling uncomfortable and avoiding you. Avoid the subject. And never forget that mafia doesn't concern "Italy" on its whole, but just some parts of Southern Italy. Inquiring about "local mafia" in Bergamo or in Lucca would be not only very rude, but also totally out of place.
14) Smoking: in Italy, more than 20% of population smokes and the government passed anti-smoke laws (that teenagers are often able to avoid) more recently than in the USA. It's forbidden to smoke in public spaces such as restaurants but not in the outside. In Italy, there are no smoke free areas and, although smoking when standing by a person at the bus stop can be very irritating, there's nothing forbidding people to do that. Just take a deep breath and distance from the person. When talking to a local, if he is about to smoke and offers you a cigarette, just reply politely "No, thanks" and don't be offended by his behaviour: to an Italian, it would be very rude to light a cigarette and not to offer one to the person they're talking to.
15) When you are out and about shopping, museum or church touring and suddenly, you have to go to the bathroom go to the closest café, then - very politely and in Italian - ask the owner: "Mi scusi, posso usare il bagno?" ("Excuse me, can I use the bathroom please?"). Chances are very good they will point the way.