Cultural Differences: England vs. Italy
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, has been living in Rome, Italy for the last 18 years, teaching predominantly adults working in companies, Politicians etc. He attends Pilgrims TT courses almost every summer as a Guest Speaker. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
As I was born and raised in England and have since passed an enormity of years in Italy, I feel it is of my utmost duty to give my observations on some of the most fundamental differences between these two great nations. One of the questions that I am regularly asked by my new students is, What are the most important differences between living in England and living in Italy and in particular, between the Italians and the English?
Let’s go back to 1989, when I started my journey towards life in Italy. The 1980’s were almost at an end, the Berlin wall had just come down and I was living in a place called Avezzano, part of the Abruzzo region. The first thing that I noticed was the way people looked at you. In England, eye contact is minimal. It is to be avoided in most circumstances. Here it seemed as if they were looking for something, as they eyed me up and down. The English might see you, but the Italians look at you, watch you and stare at you! To begin with, it was slightly unnerving.
The differences in eye contact are also noticeable when crossing the road. In London, when the traffic lights turn green to cross, the English look down at the ground and walk as fast as possible, somehow managing to avoid any physical contact with other pedestrians. In Rome, the Italians walk as if they are models on a catwalk, there to be seen, but failing in the process to notice anyone else, until someone walks into them.
Apart from eye contact, there was the question of touching. In England, it is difficult to find even lovers who share any kind of physical contact, except perhaps on Saturday night after the football. It’s amazing how football gets the adrenalin going! For Italians meanwhile, touching is an essential part of communication and interaction, even with people you’ve only just met. So, while it was pleasant to have an attractive young woman gently caressing my arm, as she tried to find excuses to justify her poor level of English, it was deeply shocking to find myself escorted arm in arm in the middle of the street, by a man who claimed to be inviting me for dinner. My face totally changed colour, as I wondered where I was heading and what lay in store for me. In England, no two men would ever walk down the street arm in arm, even if they were the best of friends.
Kissing is also a relatively rare occurrence in England, substituted by a handshake or a pat on the back. In Italy, any excuse is right for a kiss. It’s usually two pecks on the cheek. Just walk around telling everyone it’s your birthday and see how many kisses you can accumulate in the course of a day.
The physical distance between people is significantly different too. Italians stand a lot closer to each other than the English and in my early years in Rome, I often found myself moving backwards and away from people, as I needed my space. Nowadays, I hear English tourists wandering around saying sorry to almost anyone who comes within three metres of them.
Italians use their hands a lot and not just for touching. When communicating, talking is not enough! They like to wave their hands around, as it gives emphasis to what they are saying. A friendly chat on the street may be construed by a foreigner as a full-scale argument. I discovered to my cost that even in a male toilet, if you decide to talk to someone, they’ll need to use both of their hands, meaning that they might make a terrible mess! Just watch an Italian speaking on a mobile phone! Surely not, you ask? Yes, even in this instance, one hand will be going around like a Dutch windmill!
The traditional English way of eating, like crossing the road, is to make it as quick and simple as possible. The less time it takes to prepare and cook, the better. Everything once prepared, is put on one large plate. Hence, pasta, which in Italy is considered a starter or first dish, can in England be a full meal. The traditional Italian way of eating is, like crossing the road, to make it last as long as possible. It’s often considered a social occasion, to be had with as many people as possible. There is usually a starter, first dish, second dish, side dish, fruit, dessert and coffee. A traditional Italian meal can last up to three or four hours if you are not careful, and let’s not mention Italian weddings! All these dishes are intermingled with conversations on a variety of topics, many of which, may seem to an outsider to be verbal arguments, as two or three people often speak at the same time. In many English homes, laying the table is considered an option and not an obligation. Children especially enjoy eating their dinner in front of the TV with the plate perilously balanced on their laps.
Driving styles vary considerably between the Italians and the English and is once again most evident in the use of body language. The English tend to drive with their eyes focused on what is happening in front of them and both their hands on the steering wheel. If I happen to be standing on the side of the street, there is little chance that they will see me. The Italians on the other hand, tend to drive with their eyes looking to the left or the right, one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the leg of their partner. Nowadays, with the widespread use of the mobile phone, this has created a need for three hands, or alternatively for the driver to make a choice between the steering wheel or their partner’s leg.
The way in which newspapers are used on public transport in both London and in Rome demonstrates a great deal about the differences in culture between these two cities. During the rush hour in London, you can see 90% of the businessmen sitting in their seats, their entire faces covered by their paper. It might appear that they are all deeply engrossed in their silent reading, but should anyone dare to utter a word, those papers will move downwards very slowly and two frowning eyes will peer over the top.
According to official statistics, the Romans read far less than their counterparts in London. That may be linked to sales figures of papers, but take a look at any train on the Roman underground or bus and you will see one person holding their paper, while several others are huddled around reading bits of it too. If the person reading their paper falls asleep, you might even find someone turning the pages for him/her.
This may seem like a strange subject to select when analysing cultural differences, however, try shopping with one and you’ll see what I mean. In England, watch the sales assistant as you sign the receipt. He/She will hold the credit card carefully with both hands, yes, like the steering wheel mentioned before and scrutinise your signature to see if there is any chance that the credit card is not yours. In Italy, you’ll be lucky if the credit card is even handed back to you and not slung at you. Neither your receipt signature, nor the one on the credit card is looked at. In fact, you don’t even need to sign the card. I spent hundreds of Euros on furniture over a period of months, before the absence of a signature on the card was noticed.
In England, you can just walk into a bank, join a queue, wait your turn, then eventually ask for the required information. In Italy, the first challenge is to get into the bank. There is often an armed guard waiting outside. Once you’ve dealt with him, there is usually a metal detector which will do its utmost to stop you getting in, short of obliging you to strip naked. The cost of a bank account in Italy is enormous. It will vary from one account to another of course, but in general, you are expected to pay for all the services provided, a card to withdraw cash from a hole in the wall, a cheque book, standing orders and transfers. You may even pay a small tax for the privilege of having a statement sent to you telling you how bad the situation is. This tax is also applied when spending half the day queuing at a post office to pay a bill.
In England, I pay absolutely nothing to hold my bank account, let alone to pay a bill. Until very recently, I could even get a mortgage without much trouble. However, after recent events, I doubt very much that that privilege will be retained. At least the Italian banking system won’t be straining under the pressure of having lent huge sums of money out to customers who have absolutely no ability to pay it back. I was turned down for a mortgage by fifty-nine different Italian banks before finally being offered one and even then I consider myself lucky.
England is generally considered a classist society, with clear distinctions between the so-called working and middle classes, not to mention the upper-classes. However, Italian society has more than enough examples of that. To start with, anyone who has a simple University degree is called a doctor, not in the medical sense of course. If you want to be taken seriously, it needs to be clearly indicated on your business card. I had the experience in one of those fifty-nine banks to find the manager hurrying me to leave, as he was about to take his lunch. When I gave him my card, the expression on his face changed completely and he invited me into his office to talk for an hour, thereby delaying his lunch even further. Many waiters in coffee bars address their clients according to their profession and if they don’t know, they’ll guess.
Parties are a classic example of the difference in social cultures. In England, after all the formalities of office behaviour, people let their hair down once they get out, regularly going over the top with the consumption of alcohol. In a typical English party, everyone is at the same level, irrespective of their daily roles or incomes. At an Italian party, you see the reverse effect. After working informally for most of the day, they’ll be dressed meticulously at the party, eyeing everyone up and finding out what job you do before deciding if they want to speak to you or not.
Clubs and associations in Italy have the most bureaucratic rules imaginable. It’s all written down on paper and anyone who is anyone is called a President. Condominium meetings are quite an experience. Lots of paper and discussions that go on long into the early hours of the morning, without any firm decision being made on anything. In England, the written down rules tend to be short and simple and decisions are made as and when they are needed. The English legal system reflects this in that there is no formal written constitution and decisions are often based on precedent.
One of the biggest criticisms made of the English is that of their inflexibility. On one occasion, I turned up at a canteen just before it was due to close. There was no queue and I didn’t want anything in the first part, so I skipped past, only to be reprimanded and told to go back and start again. As if that’s bad enough, wait until you start ordering. If you ask for the rice, you must have the goulash and if you don’t want the goulash, then that’s your bad luck. In a bar too, if you ask for anything that’s not on the menu, you won’t get it.
In Italy, you can have your rice without goulash, even if it isn’t on the menu. Italians are flexible about a lot of things, how you park your car, whether or not to stop at a red traffic light, if you want a smaller portion of something, even which queue you’re in. At the airport, there is a queue for Euro citizens and non-Euro citizens. However, you are best advised to join the shorter one and to keep a straight face.
This is a witty, yet deeply serious analysis of some of the differences that I have observed in my many years studying and comparing the behaviour of English and Italian people, especially with regard to life in the two major cities, London and Rome. Some readers may have shared some of these experiences, while others might be quite surprised by what they read. Readers are welcome to mail me and share their experiences, if they wish. My aim is not to draw any conclusions or make any generalisations as such. It would be quite difficult in any case to make any definite judgements, as both cultures seem to be full of contradictions and paradoxes.
The physical contact, newspapers and even eating section demonstrate that the English value their space, while the Italians like to do everything in groups, eating, driving and even reading newspapers. The Italians view the English as well organised and efficient, while the English consider the Italians as being extremely creative and sociable. This is true to some extent, but so is the opposite. The English like to rebel and try to be different when they can, while an Italian’s behaviour is often conditioned due to a fear of making a bad impression, something which forms an inherent part of their upbringing.
Many of the old stereotypes are changing. The traditional Italian family with three generations all living in the same home, “la mamma” preparing the lunch from the time she wakes up and loads of kids running around is very much a rarity today in big cities, as is the much respected English queue. Globalisation, modernisation and the means of communication will ensure that the changes continue.
I would conclude by saying that the Italians often take themselves too seriously and need to lighten up, while the English should perhaps consider sharpening up and taking themselves a bit more seriously.
Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.