Italians are considered to be one of the most stereotyped people in the world. But which are the generalizations they consider unfair and/or that bother them? Find out more in this article!
Given that the online Italophile community is mostly populated by expat bloggers, it’s not unusual to find content that focuses on the culture shocks they get to experience once they set foot in the country. You rarely get the chance to read things from the perspective of the people who have grown up here. For example, which are the representations and beliefs about Italy widespread abroad that annoy Italians? Are there false myths or things non-Italians do that bother locals? This would be an interesting thing to know, in my opinion, in order to make some clarity and better navigate within the local community, understanding the mentality and the way locals perceive the most common beliefs regarding the country (and possibly avoid gaffes).
That’s why I’ve decided to give this theme a shot and write this article enlisting four annoying misconceptions and portrayals that irk and/or even offend Italians. In order to give you a more comprehensive picture of the Italian point of view, my list will not be based on what I personally think, but it will be the result of a series of surveys I run on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram among Italian users.
GLAMORIZATION OF THE MAFIA
This is by far the most mentioned topic by the participants and “by far” I mean HANDS DOWN.
It’s a thing I’ve got not problems in categorizing among those that offend Italians, because it’s not perceived as a harmless stereotype, but rather as a behaviour that shows no empathy for mafia victims and has the potential of having a negative impact on society.
With the expression “glamorization of the mafia” we indicate the American-influenced portrayal of criminal organizations in the media, which tends to focus on aspects of their public image and lifestyle, which are considered “cool”. Martin Scorsese himself has declared in a recent interview to The Newyorker that he has always considered the lifestyle of the mafiosi to be glamorous (and you definitely perceive this in his movies). When an Italian think about the mafia, though, the last association that comes into one’s mind is the word “glamour”, given that criminal organizations have infiltrated all levels of economy and society within the country and the consequences have been devastating.
You’ll definitely see a difference between the Italian and the American approach when telling mafia stories, as only in recent times Italian TV series have started to be influenced by the latter, probably in an attempt to appeal to an international audience. Historically the Italian narrative has always been focused on the perils and terrible consequences of the mafia infiltrations within the society and it has aimed to depict the mafiosi as the bad guys, avoiding any attempt to empathize with them. It’s highly unlikely that the narrative of the poor guy Tony Soprano, victim of his mother, would have been told in Italy.
Things haven’t stopped to mass media, though, and they have gone out of hand. It’s not rare to find foreign products and restaurants using the word “mafia” as slogan and the image of famous criminals as logos, in order to place themselves in the market as “Italian”.
It’s also not uncommon for us Italians, when we go abroad, to be nicknamed with mafia-related terms and to be inquired by people if we are personally acquainted or involved (!!) with mafia people. I have a Sicilian friend who has been living in another EU country for several years and still nowadays she is regularly asked this question. I, myself, have been once nicknamed bella ma(f)fia in UK and I have been asked, with morbid curiosity, about “that branch”. It’s hard to brush these things off, honestly: personally, it would never cross my mind to ask a German if he’s somehow related to a former SS, if you know what I mean. I don’t know, I guess all of this is the result of the media representation and the spectator gaze that perceive mafiosi as entertainment figures rather than literal criminals.
It goes without saying that glamorizing mafia is considered extremely offensive to Italians. Instead of focusing on this media “perversion” regarding these criminals, people should think about the thousands of people who have lost their lives, those who have to go under cover or live with security for the rest of their existence and those who have seen their dear ones blown up or dissolved in the acid, because they dared to speak up against the mafia.
Among the stereotypes regarding the Italians, I’ve got one which is really bothering. Mafia seen as a “nice thing”. Good God. They used to throw kids in the damn acid, they killed innocent people and they were proud of it. I know I might sound crazy, but I’m from the South and even though my family, luckily, had never had anything to do with them, I had the chance to see what they were capable of and I’m bothered seeing them depicted as “romantic thieves”. Seriously, stop it.Anonymous user on Tumblr
ITALIANS ARE LAZY AND THEY DON’T WANT TO WORK
That’s another big hit among the countless of stereotypes linked to Italians. We are not bringing into question the objective problems connected with the Italian job market and work environment, but stating that Italians don’t care about working is frankly something we cannot accept.
Certain people, when they want their lazy stereotypes to be proved, decide to see only the aspects that justify their thesis. A sluggish clerk at the Poste and the shops closed during the lunch hours are for them the tangible proof all Italians are lazy and spend their time drinking the aperitivo in the closest piazza. I had read too many blog posts by tourists advising us to keep our shops open during the lunch hours in order to “save our poor economy” (not kidding).
I will leave the issue of the lunch hours and the infamous “siesta” for another time and I will talk about the impact the stereotype of the laziness has on a practical level when doing business. I can talk about this even from personal experience.
In the past I worked in the export branch and I have to report clients systematically bullying us due to this kind of belief. These clients were coming from a country with different religious traditions and hence our festivities did not correspond. Every time we had to stop for our holidays and we were not available, it was an endless series of complains and jokes about “how we were always on holiday” (we were not). I’m fairly certain they were happy with our work and yet they didn’t miss a chance to underline this fact, implying we were lazy for not being available in those days. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, addressing the issue to these people simply being very rude, but I had to rethink once I run this survey about stereotypes. Apparently mine wasn’t just an isolated incident and these unmotivated and undeserved remarks are not uncommon and they even damage some business relationships.
Believe me, we are perfectly aware we generally lack in branches like public administration, bureaucracy, marketing and customer care, yet, I think it’s easy to realize it, it’s very rude to address working people as lazy due to a national stereotype and not their actual labour. Despite the difficulties, Italy is the seventh economy in the world, a result which would have been quite hard to achieve if we were a country entirely populated by lazybones.
ITALY IS AN UNDERDEVELOPED COUNTRY
Several interviewees are under the impression that certain foreigners believe Italy to be an underdeveloped country, stuck in the 40s and 50s, and this, again, has very much to do with the American media representation. If you notice, on TV and in the movies, when the protagonist comes to Italy, usually aboard one’s own luxury car, one will be soon surrounded only by tractors and flocks of sheep blocking the path. It is surely a picturesque image, but it is quite uncommon to see it in Italy nowadays, unless you go to some very specific areas.
As a personal experience I have to report that, due to some research I did, I’ve had the chance to hang out in some online travel forums and in the sections dedicated to Italy I was kind of shocked to find many questions posted by worried people convinced that in Italy there weren’t proper sanitation – and sewerage systems.
These are just few examples: on a general note I would say this is a belief, which is to be found among some non-European people, who have never been to Italy and that have an outdated image of the country influenced by media and old stories.
ITALIAN MEALS LAST HOURS AND ALWAYS CONSIST OF AN ENDLESS NUMBER OF COURSES
Another myth which is very hard to debunk, and basically present in every Pinterest info graphic regarding Italy, is the one asserting that Italian meals take hours and consist of countless courses, dessert included.
Let me explain: during festivities and on special occasions we definitely eat like there’s no tomorrow to the point of feeling sick, but that’s absolutely not the norm. I guess foreign visitors who have been reporting this “habit” have been invited to one of these special occasions – perhaps a welcoming lunch, a special Sunday gathering, Christmas or a wedding reception – and have assumed this was the standard.
The norm until few years ago was, I guess, having two courses – a soup or pasta followed by some proteins and vegetables – but nowadays it’s fairly common having just one course. It really depends on the family’s habits.
I’ve seen this belief, along with the one concerning dinner allegedly taking place in the middle of the night, promoted even by celebrities on TV, probably for the comedic effect. Even a successful actress like Jessica Chastain, who few years ago married a man from Veneto, during this interview at the Jimmy Kimmel Show, shared her experience with her in-laws’s traditions and she felt the need to state that in Italy meals normally last three hours and dinner typically starts at 10 pm. As a person from said region, I can tell you it’s highly unlikely that in Veneto she had dinner at that time, and I’m not surprised to find many comments below the video from Venetians being as perplexed as I am.
These stereotypes are not offensive, but surely a little bit annoying for locals, probably because, behind them, there’s always this subtext suggesting laziness and hedonism on our part.
The stereotypes mentioned in the survey were several, but these were the ones that recurred the most.
I hope reading about them will be food-for-thought to better understand how to approach certain topics while in Italy and realize, once again, that we are all prone to believe certain generalizations even though we think to “know better than that”.
What do you think about them? Let’s discuss in the comment section if you like.