Italy has a reputation for being a welcoming country and Italians are friendly and courteous, as well as very used to interacting with foreigners. The Italian society is however slightly more formal than the Northern European or English-speaking ones, and it can be more sensitive to issues of respect or lack thereof, so it is wrong to assume everyone will be gregarious and laid-back. If you are polite and civil you should have no problems, but don't expect that the average Italian speaks or even understands English (except for young people).
Italians greet family and close friends with two light kisses on the cheek. Males do, too. To avoid ending up kissing on the lips note that you first move to the right (kiss the other person on their left cheek) and then to the left. In general, when joining or leaving a group, you will shake hands individually with (or kiss, depending on the level of familiarity) each member of the group. If it is a business related meeting you just shake hands.
To make friends, it's a good idea to pay some compliments. Most Italians still live in their town of origin and feel far more strongly about their local area than they do about Italy in general. Tell them how beautiful their town/lake/village/church is and possibly add how much you prefer it to Rome/Milan/other Italian towns. Residents can be fonts of knowledge regarding their local monuments and history, and a few questions will often produce interesting stories.
Whole essays can be written about the Italians' relationships with clothes. Three of the most important observations:
Italians are usually modest about their country's role in the world. It should be easy to talk to people about history and politics without provoking arguments. People will listen to your opinion in a polite way as long as you express yourself politely. Fascism is out of the mainstream of Italian politics. Despite this, avoid such topics. Some older people who lived under Benito Mussolini (the Fascist dictator who was killed by the Resistance) could easily get upset. There are also some young people who support fascist views and usually such people do not like to talk about it, so simply avoid the topic. April 25 in Italy is the "Liberation Day", the national celebration of freedom from Nazi-Fascist rule.
Similarly, in the South mafia could be a sensitive topic, so it is probably wise not to talk about it.
You will notice the difference in the mindset of the people if you spend time both in the South and in the North of the country. The North, above all in big towns like Milan, is very connected to the Central Europe mentality. People can appear colder and they could appear obsessed with their jobs. The South is more connected to the Mediterranean area. People are in general more friendly but at the same time more hot-tempered, and with less of a European attitude.
It is useful to note that lunch, dinner and closing-time for shops in the South are about one hour later than in the North. In the South families may not eat dinner until after 9pm, especially in the summer.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) persons in Italy may face legal challenges not experienced by non-GLBT residents. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in Italy, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are not eligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex couples.
Italian opinions have changed and people are now more supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) rights, but tend to be more repressive than other European nations. Tolerance of others is part of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, which, at the same time, preaches against homosexuality. Nevertheless, there is a significant liberal tradition, particularly in the North and in Rome. Conservative Italian politicians such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have expressed opposition to increasing gay rights. A Eurobarometer survey published on December 2006 showed that 31% of Italians surveyed support same-sex marriage and 24% recognise same-sex couple's right to adopt (EU-wide average 44% and 33%). A recent 2007 poll found 45% support, 47% opposition and 8% unsure on the question of support for a civil partnership law for gays.
While more information can be found on LGBT-specific websites, a brief summary of the situation is as follows: while violence is uncommon against openly gay people, most Italians are still disturbed by public displays of affection from same-sex couples and stares are almost guaranteed; most same-sex couples prefer to avoid public attention. As is the case elsewhere, the younger generations tend to be more open minded than older folks, but assumptions should not be made in either direction.
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