Italy is one of the most historical countries in Europe with its landscape serving as a portrait of years gone by. The rich history is woven into all aspects of the country including family, business and culture. With landmarks and ruins as old as two thousand years, Italy has managed to keep its history intact while adopting modern values. Today, it is not only an attraction for the tourists but also a hub of arts, fashion and traditions.
When a country has its roots engraved into history as strongly as Italy does, adapting to the moderns ways and customs becomes quite challenging. Italy has always been a family-oriented society but looking at the social structure of families today, there has been a visible shift. In the past, families used to be big in numbers but now things have changed with Italy having one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Larger families were more common in the country side and now have been restricted mostly to the South. As compared to the United States of America, where large families are still a norm in the Southern States and the Midwest, Italy’s population growth is mainly attributed to the immigrants. Contrary to the common belief, the average number of children born to a woman in the US is 2.01, against the 1.43 of Italy (lifeinitaly.com). Having said this, there is no denying the fact that the concept of an extended family is still pretty intact among the Italians. Even though the birth rate has gone down, the smaller families still form a very strong and reliable support network for each other. Unlike the Americans who usually stay confined to parents and siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins play an integral role in the formation of a dependable family system in Italy. A few decades ago, when Italy mostly consisted of rural areas, Italian families were close knitted as they used to inhabit together. This led to grandparents being treated as parents and cousins as siblings. However, due to the shift in the economic scenario, people started moving towards cities where they got jobs and settled down. Their attachment and reliance on their families declined, making them more independent like the Americans where is it common for a youngster to move out of the house and live on his own. Another similarity which exists between the two societies is the high divorce rate. This has led to a change in the family structure with single parents comprising of a large number now.
The United States is home to people of many diverse backgrounds with Italians being one of the largest groups of them all. The Italo-American families have been settled in the United States for quite a long time but they have not let their traditional values diminish. In fact, they are strongly tied to the customs and traditions of their motherland which many of them have not even visited.
An important aspect of an Italian family is the Power-Authority Structure (acad.depauw.edu). Unlike Americans where after a certain age, an individual has complete power over his life, Italian families usually have a hierarchical power-disseminating system. Mostly the elders hold the most power and it is not unusual for the children to seek permission from them in certain matters. Decision making is also centralized with the most powerful members taking important decisions for the entire family. Also, newlyweds are often seen residing nearby their parents’ house or even with them in certain cases; which is highly uncommon in the United States, where it is regarded as a sign of failure. The concept of joint-family system has barely existed in America, from 1850 onwards; the percentage of married siblings with their spouses never makes up more than 0.1 percent of the married population (Ruggles).
Religion plays an integral role in the lives of the Italians. It is deeply rooted in their traditions and values. Roman Catholics comprise of the majority of the population with about 90% of the natives practicing Catholicism. Rome is the hub of the Roman Catholic religion with a great number of magnificent churches and monasteries boasting the remarkable Italian art and architecture (lifeinitaly.com). As opposed to the staunch beliefs of the past, many changes have been brought to the constitution including freedom of religion with the removal of Roman Catholicism as the state religion and the legalization of divorce and abortion in the 1970s (seeitalia.com). Despite these changes, there are many religious practices that are still followed with fervor and zest. The situation, however, is very different in an average American family nowadays, with religion playing a very insignificant role in their lives. It is commonly observed that Americans today do not attribute their successes or failures to any higher being. According to Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, the number of people who today claim to be unaffiliated with any religion is 16.1 % which is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any religion as children. Also, one in every four Americans between the ages of 18-29, is not affiliated with any particular religion (religions.pewforum.org).
With big families and close connections, food becomes an important part of an Italian’s life. Italian cuisine is undoubtedly one of the most famous cuisines in the world. Eating habits and preferences are very different between the Americans and Italians with the latter preferring to eat only fresh food. The food miles in America are an average of 1,400 miles where as in Italy; food travels an average of 27 miles. These food miles indicate the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is consumed (Italy.culturaltv.net). The idea of dining is also different as for the Italians food is more than just eating. For them it indicates an art, a time to celebrate with family and a reason to connect with others. As opposed to this, Americans prefer to have food on-the-go. The boom of fast-food has changed the concept of family dinners as now mostly families only come together during festivities or events such as Thanksgiving and weddings.
Italians place a lot of importance on appropriate behavior. Appearances matter a lot in Italy, where the natives judge new comers on the basis of their attire and mannerism. “Bella figura” is a common concept in Italy which means “good image”. Italians are quick to judge and formulate first impressions - not just the way a person is dressed up but also his attitude and the way he present himself. When you look at average Americans, they believe in the freedom of expression. The younger generation is not brought up with an obligation to conform to the society. They are more open-minded towards change. Even in social gatherings where the Americans do not take much time to mingle and form relationships, the Italians rather keep a formal demeanor. They even wait until they are invited to be on first name basis.
Every culture has its own pros and cons. None is superior to the other. While comparing the norms of Italy and America, it is apparent that they are mostly dissimilar. As compared to the Americans who are always in a race to get ahead of others, the Italians live slow-paced lives. Stemming from a rich family-oriented history, they put more emphasis on how they spend their time instead of being extremely punctual. In America, everything is supposed to be on-the-go; their meals, work and even coffee. But that is not the case with the Italians who take pleasure in the little things in life. Instead of having a to-go policy, they sit back and enjoy their time with family and friends. Gathering outdoors is also one of their favorite activities; their interactions do not just stay confined to the in-door malls like in America; instead they have mercatos – outdoor markets where they meet and interact with each other. There is so much that one can learn from another culture, and when it comes to Italy, the teachings are simple; la vita bella- enjoy a tension-free and relaxed life surrounded with family.
Lifeinitaly.com. “Italy VS United States: Family and Social Structures”. n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Acad.depauw.edu. “Italy”. n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Ruggles, Stevens. “The Transformation of American Family Structure”. American Historical Review. 1994.
Seeitalia.com. “Religion”. n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Religions.pewforum.org. “Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation”. 2007. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Italy.culturaltv.net. “Cultural Comparison: Five Key Differences Between People in Italy and America”. n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Kwintessesntial.co.uk. “Italy – Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquettes”. n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.