Living Abroad

Italian Family Today

Often students have already formulated expectations about Italian families, whether consciously or unconsciously, perhaps based on their friends’ experiences or on their own Italo-American backgrounds. The Italy they encounter upon arrival can be quite surprising.

Just as American society changed drastically during the 1960s and 70s, Italian society, too, has seen major social changes over the past few decades, changes that brought both advantages and problems. The increase in women working outside the home, the number of young people who seek higher education, and the legalization of divorce have all caused profound changes within the family structure. Yet family values are still the focus of Italian society, and the Italian family has remained a very close social unit. Whether married, single or divorced, all Italians tend to maintain very strong links with their parents, adult children, and other relatives. Often generations share housing; grown children or elderly parents may live with your hosts. Even if they do not share a home, extended families may eat lunch (pranzo) and/or dinner (cena) together every day. Elderly parents are respected and looked after, sometimes on a daily basis, whether they live at home with their children or independently.

Italian Meals

Food and meals in Italy are a very important part of family life. They tend to be more formal affairs where the entire family sits down to a carefully set dinner table, tablecloth and all.

Italians have certain taboos when it comes to food combinations and eating certain things at the appropriate time. Cappuccino is considered a breakfast drink and is not appropriate after lunch or dinner. Instead, caffe’ can be ordered anytime of the day. Italians drink water and wine at meals. If they have pizza, they will drink soft drinks or beer. It is considered polite to always keep both hands on the table and never on your lap.

The Italian Mother

Although roles have changed for women in Italy, the mother remains the dominant figure in the Italian home. She typically runs every aspect of domestic life, and you may see her helping her family in ways you consider excessive or unnecessary. To American eyes, it may seem that Italian mothers spoil their children and husbands, or sacrifice too much to please every member of the family. Especially if the mother also works outside the home, the Italian family dynamic can seem unfair and unbalanced. However, Italians themselves believe that it is the mother who keeps the family together, who creates and maintains the familial links, who is the bond that unifies all members. She, in turn, knows she can depend on the rest of her family in her time of need. Generally speaking, the role of mother and homemaker is a much respected position in Italian society.

Italian Dress Code

Italians are very proud of their clothing styles and traditions. Dressing appropriately in Italy is very important and will impact how you are perceived by Italians. Italians dress according to the seasons and rarely deviate from seasonally-appropriate attire. In general, they tend to wear warmer clothes than their American counterparts and may worry about you getting a frescata (“catching a chill”) if you do not sufficiently cover yourself. Florentines tend to wear more classic styles, preferring basic colors such as black, brown and white. Remember,Italians dress elegantly in the city: flip flops are for summer holidays at the beach and sweatpants are for the gym. A lot depends on the nature of your family.