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Cultural Comparison:
Five Key Differences Between People in Italy and America

Author: Warren Schirtzinger

The differences between Italy and the U.S. are precisely what make cultural travel so exciting. It keeps us young and alive and fresh and never bored. But if you travel through Italy on a tour bus full of Americans, you'll never experience the real Italy. What makes Italy so interesting is the people and their way of thinking about life. With that in mind, here are five key differences between people in the U.S. and the people of Italy.

  1. Rules and Laws
    In Italy rules are not obeyed as they are elsewhere. Italians think it's an insult to their intelligence to comply with a regulation. Obedience is boring. They want to think about it. They want to decide whether a particular law applies to a specific case.... in that place, at that time. That's why Italian drivers evaluate the situation before stopping for a red light...or not. Red lights (and many other laws) are conditional, and Italians prefer exceptions to rules.

    Try running a red light in the U.S. and bystanders will gladly protest and tell you it is against the law. Puritan roots run deep in the U.S. making Americans some of the most law-abiding citizens on earth. Americans live an obedient life.

  2. Marriage and Infidelity
    The divorce rate is lower in Italy than in any other country in Europe and about 43 times lower (!!!) than in the U.S. Italians select a spouse and marry for the primary reason of creating or extending a family. Personal, romantic, sentimental, or sexual considerations all run a distant second. And once the family has been created, nothing is important enough to break it up...including infidelity.

    Seventy (70) percent of Italian men and 65% of Italian women say they have been unfaithful to their spouse. In Italy marriage and family are not based on absolute notions of right and wrong, but on the fact that the family is sacrosanct, inviolate, unassailable, regardless of the sexual activities, arrangements, or partners a husband or wife may have.

    The religious Puritans in the United States would surely point to the immorality and hypocrisy of Italians. Yet when married Americans "fool around," the relationship - which is usually based on moral and emotional absolutes - suffers the broken faith and trust, and more often than not, ends in divorce.

  3. Alcohol Consumption
    Italians are not big drinkers and they almost never drink to excess. Wine is consumed with meals as a way of complimenting the taste of the food, but it is considered the worst possible behavior to get drunk. Italians typically regard heavy drinking or getting drunk with disdain, while Americans look on it with good humor or even, in men, as a mark of virility.

    Because wine is consumed as "part of the meal," Italians also learn to drink responsibly at home when they are still in their teens. As a result, alcoholism in Italy is much less of a problem than in the U.S.

  4. Food
    It is often said that Italy has the best food in the world. And there are three primary reasons food in Italy is so good, especially compared to food in the U.S.:

    Freshness - Italians simply will not eat food that is not fresh. As a way to measure freshness, look at "food miles" which is the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed. The U.S. government says food miles in America are an average of 1,400 miles. (This makes sense when you consider that Heinz ketchup eaten in California is made with California-grown tomatoes shipped to Canada for processing and returned in bottles.) In Italy food travels an average of 27 miles. Italians eat food that's grown close to where they live.

    Ingredients - The hallmark of great Italian cuisine is the use of high quality ingredients, combined sensibly and prepared simply for maximum flavor. Using fresh product, Italians enhance the inherently delicious flavors of food with simple yet sophisticated preparation techniques. At the same time, Italian cuisine is very seasonal. The high priority placed on the use of fresh, seasonal produce distinguishes the cuisine of Italy from the imitations available in most other countries. Americans on the other hand, add many different flavors to most foods and mask its authentic taste.

    Philosophy of Food - For Italians food is more than fuel; it is part of life, family, celebratory moments, and it is important in everyday life as something to be appreciated with a sense of artistry and delight. For the U.S., food is regarded as fuel, simply a physical necessity. Here's a great example:

    The public school system in Rome lists quality of food for students as a central focus. To do this, school administrators require that the origin of the food be guaranteed: pasta, rice, bread, fruit and vegetables must come from organic farming, while meat and sausages are supplied by firms that have a certification of quality for their goods. Foods must be cooked in the school kitchens on the same day they are received (!) Menus are diversified according to the season of the year. (!!) In the classrooms, nutritional principles are explained to the students as part of cultural heritage. (!!!)

    In the U.S. the food system for schools emphasizes price over all other values. Also, the bidding process for school food has led to a cheap food policy, which takes kitchens out of schools and leads to a highly industrialized foodservice where efficiency and profits are the highest priority. Quality and freshness are not considered.

  5. Democracy and Voting*
    About 85-90% of Italians vote in every election. In the U.S. people feel alienated from the system, they see it doesn't respond very well to their needs, they don't see much difference between one political party and the other, and are resigned to the fact it's a game played by people with money for people with money. So voter participation in the U.S. is somewhere around 50-55%. Italians realize how undemocratic and dangerous it is that the elected officials of the United States hold office because 25 percent of the eligible voters put them there. Americans probably don't realize what a serious problem this is.

    *statistics provided by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

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