Top 5 social norms that aren’t quite normal to us

Coming to Italy, we all expected different social norms that what we were used to, but we did not expect them to be too drastic. The following is a top 5 list of what, in my opinion, are the most unusual social norms I have experienced here in Italy.

5. Traffic Laws

No matter what language you speak, there is no way to not understand the signs that show traffic laws. For example, everyone knows that a sign with a red circle with a line through it means no entry, and a sign with a person on it means there is a crosswalk. The signs are not difficult to figure out, so one would expect that people understand them and follow the rules. This is not the case for Italians. Italians don’t really care whether there is a sign or not; in fact, they don’t even care if there is a cop present, and even the cops don’t care! What normally would result in a $400 ticket where I am from is just an everyday thing here. Maybe this isn’t a huge culture shock to some people, but when you see a car drive in reverse down a one-way street just to find parking, you’ll see how not-so-normal things really are.

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Crosswalk signs (even when the pedestrian is carrying wine) are largely ignored in Italy. (credit: Esteban Martinez)

4. Emergency Sirens

When you hear a police car siren, ambulance siren, or even a fire truck siren, the logical thing is to move out of the way, or at least that is how it is normally. Here in Rome, I have heard countless sirens, and not once have I seen anyone move aside to let them get through. I am not quite sure why this is socially acceptable, but nevertheless, it still happens! To this day, I do not understand how even pedestrians don’t move out of the way at the sound of a siren; they simply continue on walking across the street as if everything was just fine.

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A police car siren? Nothing to hear here, just move along … (credit: Esteban Martinez)

3. Cat Calls

Yes, cat calls are on the list, and no, this does not just pertain to women. For those who don’t know, a cat call is where a person (usually a guy) whistles or shouts a comment at another person to get their attention. Normally these remarks are flirtatious or somewhere along the lines of a compliment. Here in Italy, they are about the same; the only difference is that here, they tend to be a lot more aggressive than what you would normally hear in the States. In fact, many UC students have gotten rather upset at the fact that some people go even further than just a verbal compliment. I want to make it clear that this does not only pertain to girls — this pertains to guys, as well! Even I have received some of these “aggressive cat calls,” and quite frankly, they are not too nice at all! It is one thing to pay a good-mannered compliment to a girl or guy, but it is a whole different thing to push sexual innuendos onto someone.

2. Drinking

It is a forgone conclusion that Italians drink wine. If you ask any local, they will say something along the lines of, “Everybody does it. I have been drinking since I was 12.”

Though this might sound like all Italians are alcoholics, they are actually far from it. Italians do not drink the same way Americans do. For Italians, drinking is a cultural thing having to do with good food and good flavors. Meanwhile, Americans drink to get “chocolate wasted.” As my professor explained it to us, “Rare is the occasion that you will ever see an Italian drunk on the street; it just does not happen.” And its true. Now, I am not saying that there is no such thing as an Italian alcoholic; I am just saying that as a society, they do not drink in the same manner that we do. The reason for this is that Italians are really particular about what they call bella figura, which is basically the manner in which one acts in public and the way one carries oneself. Taboos would be wearing basketball shorts in public unless you are playing a sport, being drunk in public and being obnoxious on the train.

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Wine: It’s what’s for dinner. (And lunch. And breakfast.) (credit: Esteban Martinez)

1. Smoking

Smoking in the United States is more or less banned in most public places. For example, most states have banned smoking in restaurants and bars. Not to mention, it is banned on all modes of public transportation. Meanwhile in Italy, smoking is permitted at most places. I once joked that I didn’t know what will kill me first: vitamin deficiency or second-hand smoke. Now I am realizing that my joke was actually quite accurate. To most of the students in the study abroad program, smoking did not seem like that big of a deal at first, but now a few weeks later, we are starting to wonder if we will be going home with lung problems because of all of the second-hand smoke we have inhaled.


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