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Are the Italians as unfriendly as they seem?

Posted by on Saturday, May 20, 2017 in Blog posts.

Smile. Verb/noun. Definition: a facial expression in which the eyes brighten and the corners of the mouth curve slightly upward and which expresses especially amusement, pleasure, approval, or sometimes scorn.

Smiling is something that is innate. As humans, we start to smile when we are only a few weeks old. It has been proven babies even cry less when they have mothers that smile often. I am a neuroscience major so I have learned in many of my classes why as humans we smile. Think back to a time before language, how did humans talk? Facial expressions. We have so many intricate muscles all concentrated around our eyes and mouth for that exact reason—communication. Here in Italy I do not really speak the language well, but smiling is universal so I thought I would be able to communicate with people at least in that aspect.


However, I have been in many scenarios where I feel like I haven’t been able to communicate through a simple smile. For example, I go running on the boardwalk between 2-3 times per week. The boardwalk is a mile long strip that has certain parts with more people than others. I have always grown up being taught to smile at the people I pass while running as a common courtesy. It would be nearly impossible to smile at every single person on the boardwalk, so I limit my smiling to just other people who are exercising. Back at home smiling unites two people exercising, I smile at them, they smile back and then continue on. However, here, I smile at someone and they simply stare at me, keep their straight face, and keep going. I have been experimenting as I run each time to see if this scenario was situational and only specific to certain people. I have come to the conclusion that the women here especially do not smile back when I smile at them, whereas it goes 50/50 with the men. This makes me wonder whether or not the act of smiling at someone just to be friendly is cultural, or if these people that have been exercising alongside me have just been purely unfriendly.


I think back to what I know about culture. I know some cultures prefer not to make eye contact due to the fact that they view it as a form of being challenged or disrespect. Part of initiating a smile is making eye contact first to show that you are smiling at that specific person instead of just smiling while running. If it is considered disrespectful, it would make sense why the people passing by wouldn’t smile, but it doesn’t make sense at why half of the men smiled back but the other half didn’t. I didn’t think the Italian culture considered eye contact a threat or disrespect. This causes me to think there could be another reason as to why a smile wasn’t reciprocated among 75% of the Italian people I passed running. I have thought about it and analyzed the Italian culture a bit more in order to make this hypothesis, but I think it is because the way in which Italians speak and communicate is so much more exaggerated than the way Americans communicate with each other. Italians make grand hand gestures and speak at very loud volumes. Rather than only relying on facial expressions, they also place emphasis on body language. Americans tend to talk at a lower volume, use less hand gestures, and really focus on people’s facial expressions in order to get full picture of the communication. With all that being said, I have come to believe that maybe the reason why the Italians haven’t been smiling back is because they pay more attention to large body gestures rather than small smiles and facial expressions. I believe that they are not unfriendly people, they probably just aren’t looking for the soft smiles that I give them while running.

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