The whys and hows of arguing with an Italian

The most romantic of us would like to see love as a force that conquers all, but intercultural relationships can be tough. A partner from a different background challenges the beliefs and habits we developed while growing up in our native land. Some things we were taught since childhood sound new to them, some values are opposite.
While every single person is a unique combination of quirks, identifying which traits come from our partner’s upbringing is vital for a successful intercultural relationship.

My own experience with a Swedish partner taught me to be more conscious of cultural differences and their impact. It’s a long and sometimes frustrating process of adjusting, unlearning and relearning. On the way, I gained new awareness about the Italian culture and about myself.

One important thing I had to face is the peculiar way Italians argue and how this can sometimes be overwhelming. As brilliantly put by one of my housemates: “You don’t argue with an Italian. An Italian argues with you“. She’s Spanish, so she knows that siamo sulla stessa barca.

So if you have an Italian partner or Italian friends you might want to read on and learn more about the fine art of arguing with an Italian. Though hopefully, you won’t have to apply it a whole lot!

Siamo sulla stessa barca: We are in the same boat

arguing with an italian

Why do you argue with an Italian?

There are of course a number of personal reasons that may lead to a fight, but there can be some common patterns when it comes to cultural differences. After all, we know there are some things that your Italian partner doesn’t approve at all…
Four big sensitive topics with an Italian are food, hygiene, jealousy and religion.

Food

Because of our long and renowned culinary tradition, we easily get a bit snobbish about food. We have the best ingredients, the best recipes and the one and only right way to serve food, so don’t mess with us on this!
Living abroad probably makes Italians more open to trying new things, but most of us will likely hold in our hearts the certainty that le ricette di nonna are the absolute peak of world cuisine. But yes, we can try to have it your way tonight! Wait… are you putting parmigiano on seafood pasta!?

Hygiene

Italians are also considered a bit fussy about hygiene. Be it personal hygiene or house cleaning standards, we wash and clean a lot. I’ve already mentioned that we have more bidets than anyone else in the world. We don’t really get why you’re not rinsing dishes after you wash them or the bathtub after taking a bath. So while we get annoyed because the kitchen you just cleaned up is not actually clean (by our standards) you’ll probably get frustrated at being treated like a child who needs to be taught stuff all the time.

Jealousy

Now, I hope you don’t get the chance to experience the wrath of a jealous Italian. The upbringing in a country where gender equality is still far from being achieved makes relationships between men and women quite complicated. Many people are still convinced that a man and a woman can’t be just friends, or that men are all “hunters” and women are desperate to “steal” your man. This can lead to endless discussions whenever you catch up with a mate or grab a coffee with a female colleague.

Religion

Finally, for some Italians religion is still a big part of life. Whether they want you to andare a messa with them, or their Catholic beliefs shape their mentality, this can cause some trouble if you come from a country with a secular tradition. It sounds a bit last century to be against marriage for same-sex couples, abortion or divorce, no?

Le ricette della nonna: Grandma’s recipes
Andare a messa: To go to the Mass / To go to church on Sunday

How do Italians behave in an argument?

First, I have some bad news for you: you’ll probably argue with an Italian more often than you would with a Brit or a northern European. This is because we come from a more individualistic culture and therefore we are less scared of confrontation. If anything bothers us we speak our mind and we are quite vocal about problems. This might sound stressful, but Italians prefer to go through an issue as soon as possible and get it out of the way. This means, on the positive side, less passive aggressiveness and a faster resolution of misunderstandings.

As for the actual “how”, let’s imagine your stereotypical hot-blooded Italian, gesticulating, raising their voice and all. It might look scary, but sometimes it’s more about getting carried away than actually being that mad.

Two things that would be considered unacceptably rude in other countries are not uncommon in Italy: pointing one’s finger at someone and interrupting when someone is talking. Both are impolite in Italy, but not as much as elsewhere.

Italians can point a finger at you as an obvious gesture of accusation, as in “Hai finito tu il caffè?“. They can also use it in normal situations to make it clear they’re asking you something, as in “E tu che cosa ne pensi?“, so don’t take it as a sign of disrespect.

The same applies to interrupting you while you’re speaking. In an argument, it’s probably going to drive you crazy how Italians talk over you. In everyday life, though it’s way more common for people from southern Europe to have animated conversations, where the words of one fuel the ideas of the other and we end up interrupting, being interrupted, interrupting again.

There are two big taboos when arguing with an Italian: one is la mamma and one is God. No matter if you’re angry out of your mind, leave these two out of the argument.

Maybe you heard it on the street or someone taught you, but never ever reply “Tua madre!” (your mother) if you want to avoid offending the other person immensely.

Also be careful because bestemmiare (cursing God) is very much frowned upon and you don’t want to be heard saying anything that involves God or any member of his family… In some regions though, like Tuscany, Friuli Venezia-Giulia and Veneto, more people use bestemmie as a common exclamation.

La mamma: mom
Hai finito tu il caffè? Did you finish the coffee?
E tu che cosa ne pensi? And what do you think about it?
Tua madre! Your mother! A way to reply to an insult that you DO NOT want to use.
Bestemmiare: To curse God

How to positively end an argument with an Italian?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a catch-all solution for this one. Trying to understand each other’s points of view and to compromise when possible are a good starting point.
Another important achievement when in an intercultural relationship is learning to see the cultural differences in the other’s behaviour. This can avoid further misunderstandings and fights.
A word or a gesture can have an unexpected meaning even in a culture relatively close to yours, so keep questioning what you think you know. With every challenge come new discoveries and even more fun: don’t forget to look beyond the surface!

Have you ever had an argument with an Italian? What struck you the most? If you are in an intercultural relationship or you have friends from different countries, have you noticed any differences in the way you argue?

Tired of fighting? Get the latest addition to the secret library: 10 Italian expressions to make up, after an argument. Click on the image to sign up and get access to free learning resources 🙂

arguing with an italian

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4 Comments

  1. 10th September 2017 / 11:10 am

    Adoro questi post in cui riesco a vedermi dall’esterno!

    • Elena
      10th September 2017 / 1:37 pm

      Spero che sia una descrizione abbastanza accurata e non troppo severa di noi italiani!

  2. Elfin
    10th September 2017 / 4:26 pm

    Hi Elena, love this post!

    Unfortunately, the jealousy part is very real and a little hard to bear.

    Despite having lived in Italy for forever, and being Italian, I still don’t understand why I can’t be friends with a guy and how this proves my faithfulness.

    I’m not sure Italians aren’t afraid of confrontations. I think they are. It’s complicated. I mean, I know what you mean. But I feel that Italians can’t handle different views without it being reason for an argument.

    If you express your opinion on a product, a service or behaviour and you’re honest without being aggressive, you still end up with an argument.

    Voicing our opinions shouldn’t be considered an act of war. Not sure what that stems from.

    I’ve always loved the British capacity to voice an opinion and not make it personal.

    Anyway, great topic!

    • Elena
      13th September 2017 / 3:20 pm

      Hi Elfin, thank you for your comment!

      Unfortunately on the jealousy side I’m guilty. Despite being a feminist and firmly believing in friendship between men and women, sometimes my irrational side kicks in. But I’m doing my best to control it!

      I think I noticed a huge contrast with Swedes, who keep acting as everything was fine even though they’re boiling inside. From my experience, Italians would give voice to their dissatisfaction earlier.

      I do understand what you mean about being unable to argue about any different view, and that is very true as well. In Italy many people are “tifosi” for something, may it be a football team, a political party, North vs South, cats vs dogs… anything really.
      The Brits made an art of being polite even when they disagree, they’re unbeatable at that 🙂

      Thank you again 🙂