If you’re to enjoy your time in Italy, you’ll need to be aware of some basic niceties that are observed in the Italian culture. Not only will you be more comfortable in a foreign land, you won’t risk embarrassing yourself or others.
Greetings – In Italy, it would be best to be introduced by a third party rather than introducing yourself. A firm handshake is expected when you meet and again when you leave, and most Italians hug friends when they meet, but that is not expected of foreigners.
Contact – The personal bubble of space we surround ourselves with is much smaller in Italy than in North America or northern Europe. Italians stand closer to each other when speaking and can often be found walking arm in arm or holding hands – especially in the late afternoon.
Conversations – When speaking to an Italian, you can expect to be close to the individual thanks to the smaller bubble of space. You should also maintain eye contact with the individual. To look away is considered rude or you’re saying that you’re bored. Also avoid putting your hand on your stomach – it’s a sign that you find the person distasteful.
Seating – The young often give up seats for the older individuals and men typically offer women their seats if the opportunity arises. In Italy, always wait for your host to seat you – don’t seat yourself unless specifically instructed to do so.
Eating – When eating you should stop and focus on the food. Italians rarely walk and eat at the same time. The exception is the gelato. You would be perfectly in bounds to walk while eating a gelato.
Shopping – When shopping, you might see individuals walk right to the front of the line, effectively barging in or cutting. This is common among those with a close relationship to the seller and is tolerated by Italians. Also be sure to offer proper greetings when you enter or leave a shop.
Rude Gestures – Rubbing your chin with your fingers and then flicking them forward is a gesture of contempt. Also be wary of a hand gesture that resembles the devil’s horns. If the fingers are pointing outward, it’s obscene. If the fingers are pointing in, you’re warding off evil. Pointing your pinky and index finger is a wish of bad luck on another person. Also slapping a raised arm or thumbing your nose is considered the height of rudeness. While not as offensive, it is socially unacceptable to chew gum, lean or slouch in public.