How to effectively communicate in Italy
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And the same goes for communication.
Communicating goes far beyond mere words, also including non-verbal and paraverbal aspects. Geographical differences make everything more complicated – and interesting – as you won’t find the same implicit communication codes everywhere you go.
Today we’ll focus on Italy, where gestures often come before words. And are more effective.
When talking about Italian, I believe it’s important to underline the existence of a plurality of languages. Our language has so many facets and varieties that it’s hard to enclose it in the strict label of “standard Italian”.
In every region – but also every province and city – Italian is characterised by unique accents and is enriched by local words and expressions that are unlikely to be heard elsewhere. If you rent a holiday home in Genoa, for instance, the house owner might tell you that it includes a poggiolo, the local word for balcony (instead of the more “standard” balcone).
Furthermore, in Italy, almost everyone is at least bilingual. This is because our dialects (some of which are actually considered languages, such as Sardinian) still play a prominent role, and in recent years, have undergone revaluation. We’re not talking about single different words, but whole distinct language structures that are hard to understand if you’re not a local. Dialects enrich our cultures and help us protect them and transmit them from one generation to another.
Do you speak English?
Italian people are not known for their skills in foreign languages, English in particular. According to a ranking by Education First (last visit to the website: September 29th, 2022), Italy comes in 35th place out of 112 countries for its English language skills. It’s not terrible, but we could definitely do better. So, if you’re planning on travelling or moving to Italy, be sure to learn at least the basics of the language. Of course, in the tourism industry, workers speak English and other languages, but that might not always be the case while you’re strolling around the city.
Talking without speaking
We’ve only discussed linguistic aspects so far, but the best is yet to come. In Italy, we could win a prize for “best gesturality in the world”, which is something to be proud of. Gestures are sometimes more valuable than words and, in our country, we use a variety of them. Among the available options, you’ll find gestures to say, “I don’t care”, and “delicious”, all the way through to the well-known “what do you want?!”, which is so important, that it now has its own emoji: 🤌🏼.
But let’s not forget that non-verbal communication is not just about gestures, but about distance too. Everyone has a sort of imaginary “bubble” around them called personal space. There’s also an intimate space, even closer to our body, and then a social and a public space, further and further from us. These circles represent a metaphorical distance from others and a space where we feel (or don’t feel) at ease. In Italy – and especially in southern regions – this bubble is probably less respected than elsewhere because physical contact is another important element of our communication style. So, if someone you’ve just met touches your shoulder, don’t get mad, they just want to reassure you or show support.
If people in the UK usually talk about the weather when they have nothing else to say, in Italy we leverage other topics to fill the silence. Family is probably the most common. “How’s your mother?” and “Look at your brother! He’s all grown up now!”, are just some examples of things you might hear from people who know each other at some level. But if this is not the case, don’t worry, you can always talk about food or pets, which are definitely on our list of favourite topics.
Talking about food, in countries like Italy, there’s nothing better than eating and drinking together to break the ice!
It’s just as important to keep in mind less-appreciated topics, such as money and earning. If you need to fill the silence, it’s better to choose one of the earlier topics mentioned instead.
And if you’re looking for support to communicate effectively with your Italian audience, I’d be more than happy to help!