Italians are much more formal than most foreigners imagine and newcomers should be careful to avoid offending anyone.
How to behave in Italy?
When you’re introduced to an Italian, you should say ‘good day’ (buongiorno) and shake hands. Women may find that some men kiss their hand, although this is rare nowadays. When being introduced to someone in a formal situation, it’s common to say ‘pleased to meet you’ (molto lieto). When saying goodbye, you should shake hands again. It’s also customary to say ‘good day’ or ‘good evening’ (buonasera) on entering a small shop, waiting room or lift, and ‘good day’ or ‘goodbye’ (arrivederci or, when addressing only one person, arrivederla) on leaving (friends say ciao).
‘Buongiorno’ becomes ‘buonasera’ any time after the lunch break (around 1pm), although if you choose buonasera or buongiorno, don’t be surprised if the response isn’t the same. Good night (buonanotte) is used when going to bed or leaving a house in the evening.
If you don’t know someone’s title, you can use signore (for a man) or signora (woman); a young woman may be addressed as signorina, although nowadays all women tend to be addressed as signora.
Italian families and friends usually kiss when they meet, irrespective of their sex. If a lady expects you to kiss her, she offers her cheek. Between members of the opposite sex the ‘kiss’ is deposited high up on the cheek, never on the mouth and isn’t usually really a kiss, more a delicate brushing of the cheeks accompanied by kissing noises. There are usually two kisses – first on the right cheek, then on the left. It’s also common in Italy for male relatives and close male friends to embrace each other.
Forms of address
When talking to a stranger, particularly older Italians, you should use the formal form of address (lei). Don’t use the familiar form (tu) or call someone by their Christian name until you’re invited to do so. Generally the older or senior person invites the other to use the familiar ‘tu’ form of address and first names.
Italians dress well and seem to have an inborn sense of elegance and style. Presentation and impression are all-important to Italians and are referred to as ‘bella presenza’ or ‘bella figura’. Italians generally dress well and appropriately, tending to be more formal in their attire than most northern Europeans and North Americans.