Culture Shock in Italy: Friendship

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According to UN statistics there are 232 million expatriates in the world a steadily rising number of people who have chosen to move overseas from 154 million in 1990 and 175 million in 2000. The motives for becoming an expat are quite varied whether it be economic or personal there are many people who choose to move out of their comfort zones and freely live in another country.

It’s a brave choice to become an expat, leaving behind friends, family, culture and even a mother tongue can be the biggest adventure imaginable yet it most certainly not all smooth sailing. The biggest boundary to settling into life in a new country has to be culture shock, which is when your own personal habits and values are diametrically opposed to those of your new home. It can be emotionally isolating and depressing to hit head on with conflicting opinions and ways of life. There is no way around culture shock you just have to be aware of it and either accept it or negotiate yourself around it.

You’d think moving to your dream home in Tuscany or Villa in the South of France or any other place on your bucket list would result in instant happiness but the reality is one filled with endless daily adjustments. I’ve written extensively about my own personal struggle in a light-hearted and comical way like in this recent post for COSI’ .

I have adapted well to life in Sicily, Italy but I still find myself stressing about the smaller things which I’d still like to share with anyone who is contemplating shifting their life to Italy which is probably one of the most idealised places in the world for potential expats. So I’ll be occasionally sharing my acquired insight into daily life in Italy with everyone. This time let’s talk about Friendships in Italy.

Socially Sicilians are very closed in and insular people. Not to say they are dull, on the contrary they are warm-hearted and vivacious, but basically they have a reserved nature. Their distinct dialect can keep foreigners firmly locked outside of a conversation.

Even as you open the code of their language there is precious little small talk in their lives other than the everyday gossip that keeps society’s wheels oiled, no sharing of real emotions or opinions with others unless it involves politics or sport, then you can posture and yell as you please.

I’ve always struggled with making friends here in Sicily, simply because those around me have already formed their friendships and seldom look out of their family or established community to make new connections.

It is usual for Sicilians and Italians to grow up with the same people around them, school mates and classes are formed by the same group of people from kindergarten to primary school and often through to high school. At University or work there are new bonds formed but they are more professional connections.

People are quite formal, when you first meet someone you need to use the polite ‘lei’ form which is like calling someone Madame or Sir. Quite often the formality is maintained permanently of someone is older, more qualified or holds a more important position than the other. Usually a mutual agreement is reached between the two parties so the casual ‘tu’ or ‘you’ can be used to address one another after a few weeks of working together but if it your superior it will usually mean a lifetime of using this complex formal tense.

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One disturbing aspect I find in the social life here is the fact Italians believe friendship between a man and a woman can never truly exist. There is no word to describe a male friend or female friend that doesn’t have connotations of a sexual nature. There is no way I can justify having male friends, my husband once said to me, ‘all men want is to have sex, not friendship.’  There are work colleagues, acquaintances, relatives and school friends, yet male friends outside of these contexts are considered boyfriends or lovers.

Perhaps I am generalising here but particularly in Sicily I find women tend to socialise with women and men with men, unless it is a school or work situation. For example if there is a party women will often stick to their friends, unless they have a boyfriend or are engaged and them even after people get married, they go back to their old habits, husbands with their male friends and women with their female friends.

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The lack of platonic male female friendships in Italian culture is a real problem, particularly when it comes to issues such as equal rights between the sexes and feminism. How can a women be considered an equal to man when she is still seen as a sexual object and not simply a friend or equal? Italy has many problems with violence against women, women’s rights in the workplace and professional world all because of the predominance of this latent machismo in society.

At times the culture shock for foreigners in Italy can be crippling but it is something to negotiate everyday. The most frustrating thing is wanting to change things yet realising it is impossible. I began to feel happy living in Italy when I let go of trying to change the culture and accepting things the way they were.

You can never make Italy the way you want it but you can live and take what is best for you. As a foreigner you are lucky to be able to pick what is best for you while being aware of the problems. Any culture is in constant evolution so who knows, things may gradually change, but it is all beyond one person.

Personally I try to be polite but I am above all upfront and explain to people I am a foreigner and may make mistakes with the formal tense, so to an extent I am tolerated or forgiven for breaking protocol. As for the way I socialise, I don’t get intimidated and often will get up from the women’s table and go sit by my husband to talk with the guys, which really isn’t worth the trouble as they mainly talk about sports and politics anyway ;-(

The best way to socialise in Italy is through the food, everyone loves to eat so throw yourself into the cuisine, a bottle of wine helps and the friendship issue usually sorts itself out after everything is digested.

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3 thoughts on “Culture Shock in Italy: Friendship

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post, Rochelle.
    As an Italian living in Australia I have to agree with a lot of what you write about how Italians interact but I have to admit that I had very similar “friendship” experiences in Australia.
    In Italy, and Europe, I have always had a lot of male friends but since I live in Melbourne (25 years!!) I haven’t made any Australian male friends and this has always bothered me a bit. It appears that because I am married (to an Ozzie!) I should just hang around with my husband and, of course, I have been blaming it on the cultural differences!
    I am wondering if perhaps it’s just about the time we are at in our lives, my male friends in Europe are guys I met when I was young and single, we have a shared past and memories. Since I’ve been in Australia I have always been with my boyfriend first and then husband, perhaps this has stopped potential male friends!
    I don’t know, but it is extremely interesting to read the similarity in our experiences, I guess is the expat life we have in common, no matter where we are!

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I see your point, when you are at a different stage of your life the friendship making aspect changes, especially when you have children you find yourself befriending other women over common experiences. But my sense of frustration is more because I feel restricted, even striking up conversations

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  2. is difficult sometimes. I think my part of Sicily is always and will always be a little more traditional, which is frustrating at times. Yes I think most expats experience the same frustrations. I’m actually thinking about writing an ebook about being an expat, there are so many of us with shared experiences.
    Sorry about cutting this response in two but I slipped on my phones keyboard😯. Always a pleasure to hear from you Barbara☺ Cheers👋

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