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House-Sitting in Italy: A Cross-Cultural Guide

Welcome to Nomador's Cultural Differences & House-sitting series, which is all about how cultural differences can impact our members’ experiences as house-sitters around the world. Our goal is to offer practical information and tips that can help you bridge the cultural differences you might experience as a house-sitter. If you’re new to the series, be sure to read the series introduction, our country guides to France, Spain, Canada, and Australia, and our two regional guides focusing on Latin America and Asia.

This is our fifth country-specific guide, with a focus on how cultural and social differences might affect house-sitters in Italy.

Venice - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

What Makes Italy Such a Popular House-Sitting Destination?

A country that has long captured the attention of foreigners, Italy’s reputation for fantastic food,  wine, and la dolce vita attracts millions of tourists each year. While it’s no surprise that Italy is a popular house-sitting destination, it’s interesting to look at both the house-sitting and pet care markets to understand why Italy is such a natural fit for Nomador members.

The House-Sitting Market in Italy
As with Spain, Italy is a favourite among European, British, and American retirees and expats. As expats sometimes need to visit their home countries to see family and take care of the administrative aspects of life, this creates a natural market for house-sitters, especially when combined with shorter trips for business and pleasure.

In addition to the expat market, Italians themselves are embracing people-to-people (P2P) services and sharing economy businesses. A 2015 ING study found sharing economy participation rates among Italians and Spaniards are about 3 times those of Austria and Germany. Italians were also more likely than many nationalities to view the sharing economy as a positive force in building communities. Despite the legislative tension between traditional professional orders and guilds and new, digital P2P platforms, individual Italians seem ready to embrace these models; this further contributes to house-sitting opportunities across the country.

Pet Parents and Fur Families
Beyond the need for house-sitters to care for properties and homes lies the fact that Italians love their pets!

Italy has the fifth largest pet population in Europe, with 40% of Italians owning either a cat or a dog. Adding to that, Italians have embraced the global trend toward pet humanization, with more and more Italians seeing their pets as members of their families, rather than property.

With a market need and cultural trends pointing to a demand for more house-sitters and pet-sitters in Italy, Nomador members can expect to find a range of opportunities across Lo Stivale (The Boot).

Rome - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

Understanding Italy and Italian Culture

To talk about Italian culture is a bit of a misnomer, as regional differences are substantial, especially between the North and South. And while not perfect, breaking Italian culture into two distinct regions (Northern Italy and Southern Italy) makes sense for the purpose of this article.

This article will take a high-level look at the cultural differences you can expect to encounter in Italy, drawing on several academic theories about national culture, as well as unique aspects of everyday life. Additionally, it will offer some tips to help you make the most of your Italian house-sitting soggiorno (sojourn).

Time Orientation Across Cultures: Monochronic vs. Polychronic
Different cultures have different inherent beliefs about time, and are broadly categorised as either monochronic or polychronic.

In monochronic cultures, such as the United States, United Kingdom, English Canada, Northern France, Australia, and Germany, time is linear and rigid. People complete one task at a time, prioritize tasks over relationships, and create rigid boundaries between work and play. In monochronic cultures, punctuality is exceptionally important, and is viewed in terms of respect for those you’re meeting with. “Time is money” is a classically monochronic way of viewing the world.

People in polychronic cultures, such as Latin America, much of Southern Europe, parts of the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, view time more fluidly. In these cultures, relationship-building is just as important as meeting a deadline or punctuality, if not more so. Polychronic cultures produce natural multi-taskers, and people tend to be very flexible when it comes to schedules. Whereas people from monochronic cultures view punctuality as a sign of respect to the person you’re meeting with, those from polychronic cultures view your willingness to let a meeting run late as a sign of respect for the person you’re currently with. If “time is money” is classically monochronic, then the proverb, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others” sums up the polychronic view.

Italy is often listed as classically polychronic, but in fact it varies from north to south. Whereas Northern Italians are far more likely to agree with the statement “time is money,” those in the South are more likely to value relationships over productivity and deadlines.

It’s worth noting that monochronism and polychronism are not absolute; they lie on a scale, and whether you view another culture as one or the other depends on your own culture. To Brits (very monochronic), people from Northern Italy might seem polychronic, but to Mexicans (very polychronic), people from Northern Italy might seem monochronic.

As this applies to housesitting, Nomador’s members from the Anglo countries and Northern France are likely to be more monochronic than most Italians, whereas and those from Southern France might find this aspect of Italy’s culture somewhat familiar.

In terms of how this may impact your housesitting experience in Italy:

  • Italians are generally less concerned about punctuality than Canadians, Americans, Brits, Germans, and Northern French. This could impact appointments or scheduling for pre-housesit calls, or even start and end dates of a house-sit. This difference will be more pronounced in the South, and less pronounced in the North and in business centres such as Milan.
  • Italians will likely wish to invest some time in building a relationship with you, mixing social conversation and ‘to the point’ discussions about the assignment. Don’t jump straight to business when you’re speaking with an Italian homeowner or when you arrive at your house-sitting assignment. Allow your host to guide the conversation, and hold back the urge to direct conversations toward what you see as more productive topics.

Sienasunburst - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

High Context Vs. Low Context Cultures
As with time, different cultures place different importance on the verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication. Specifically, high-context cultures emphasize implicit meaning, whereas low-context cultures emphasize explicit meaning.

In high-context cultures, what isn’t said is just as important as what is said, if not more so. People use nonverbal communication and context (relative social status/power of those communicating, setting of a meeting or interaction, appearance, body language, etc.) to derive meaning. When members of the same high-context culture communicate amongst themselves, they apply shared cultural knowledge and norms to derive meaning, and often talk around the actual subject at-hand, reaching agreement and resolution from the nonverbal and social cues of the interaction.

People from low-context cultures, on the other hand, are much more direct. To people from these cultures, saying what you mean is valued, and meaning is derived from the actual words used. While people from low-context cultures also derive meaning from nonverbal communication (for example, realizing a friend is in a bad mood from their body language and facial expressions alone), words hold more weight.

Italy falls toward the high-context end of the scale, with Southern Italy being higher-context than Northern Italy. France is also a high-context culture, whereas the Anglo cultures are generally low-context.

If you’re from a low-context culture and plan to house-sit in Italy, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Relationships should be fostered over time. Take the time for pleasantries and chit-chat before communicating what you consider to be the "real reason" for your message, and try to approach interactions with warmth and openness, rather than shyness or reserve.
  • Expressive hand gestures are a classically Italian example of high-context communication; but be aware that sometimes, the same hand gesture can mean something totally different depending on context.
  • Italians have a reputation for being loud and expressive when they speak, which can sometimes come across as aggressive. Don’t assume an Italian speaking to you loudly is angry or yelling.

Whereas Nomador members from English-speaking countries may find Italians to be higher context than they’re used to, those from France may find Italians to be lower context. French members should be aware of the following potential differences between French and Italian cultures:

  • While both French and Italian culture place an emphasis on using communication to build relationships, Italy doesn’t have many formal rules about behaviour. Italians are less focused on social protocols and rules, and are generally quite forgiving of foreigners who make mistakes!
  • You may find Italians to be informal and relaxed from the first interaction. That said, it’s still best to address the homeowner with their title and surname, and use the polite “lei” form of Italian, until asked to switch to the “tu” form and first names.

Masculinity, Machismo and Gender Roles
One of the more controversial metrics* by which cultural differences are measured, the Masculinity-Femininity dimension reflects the degree to which a culture is “driven by competition, achievement and success” / winning.

In masculine cultures such as Japan, the United States, Mexico and Germany, societies are driven by achievement. Men and women tend to follow traditional gender roles: men are assertive and focused on material success, and women are caring and focused on quality of life.

In feminine cultures, such as Sweden, Portugal, Thailand, and the Netherlands, people of all genders focus more on quality of life than monetary success. The societal ideal for both men and women is the same, with a focus on quality of life and caring for others.

If the phrase “live to work” accurately describes a masculine culture, “work to live” better reflects the attitude in feminine cultures.

Scoring a 70 on this index, Italy is an undeniably masculine culture, and scores higher than any of the Anglo countries, as well as France. Additionally, there is a cultural norm of machismo and ingrained sexism that can be surprising to foreigners. As with the other cultural differences, Southern Italy has more pronounced gender roles than Northern Italy.

How might this impact your house-sitting experience?

  • Italian men rarely cook or clean, and Italians may be surprised by male house-sitters that do! If you’re a single male housesitter, don’t be surprised if you’re treated with some skepticism by homeowners, and be clear in your application about your past successes caring for others’ homes.
  • For solo female house-sitters, and even for women travelling with a man, be prepared for catcalling. While serious assaults are rare, unwanted male attention can be frustrating. The best practice for dealing with the constant call of ciao bella is to simply ignore it and move on; in fact, most Italian men don’t actually expect a response.

*Note: It’s worth noting this dimension, and the label of “masculine vs. feminine,” was developed in the 1970s and 1980s. While the label itself seems outdated, the concept and scores have been empirically supported and correlate with other studies.

Verona - Pixabay Photos

Day-to-Day Life in Italy

Beyond academic theories about culture, there are practical aspects of day-to-day life in Italy that might be different from what you experience at home or elsewhere on your travels. We’ve outlined some of the most common aspects of life in Italy that surprise foreign visitors!

Appearance Matters in Italy
In the country that gave us many of the world’s most prestigious fashion brands, it’s no surprise that appearances matter. Dress well and maintain a neat and fashionable appearance in Italy, because Italians won’t hesitate to (and probably will) judge the book by it’s cover!

How you’re dressed, how well groomed you are, and even your posture will be observed and used to form an opinion about you. If you want to make a good impression, plan to be well-groomed and well-dressed upon meeting Italians. This includes a nice pair of shoes, fashionable clothing, tasteful accessories, and tidy hair.

Strikes Are A Fact Of Life
Strikes are a fact of life in Italy, most often impacting transportation and public services.

If you’re planning on being in Italy for awhile, there is an official website for Italian strikes where you can find information. Although it’s in Italian, if you view the website in Google’s Chrome browser, it will automatically translate the site to your preferred language, and can help you plan your travel and daily activities around planned strikes.

Efficiency
Italians, in general, are fairly laid back about life. And while that seems romantic at first, to foreigners used to efficiency and rule following, trying to get things done in Italy can be a bit of a shock to the system.

In some parts of the country, public transport is consistently late, and schedules can’t be relied on. Lining-up (queuing) is another concept that hasn’t made in-roads in Italy, and you shouldn’t be surprised that Italians will try to get past you in a queue in an ‘every man for himself’ push to the front.

The best advice in this case comes from an Italian:
... take it easy, as we do…. Learn that nothing is so important, that there is no need to hurry, enjoy what you have... You don't get what you want today? Well, it will come, eventually, one day….

Language
While most Italian schoolchildren study English starting in primary school (only a very small percentage study French), proficiency is middle of the road, with Italy ranking 20th among EU member states. However, 62% of Italians don’t speak any foreign languages, which is comparable to the English as a first language countries of the UK and much of Ireland.
 
While you’ll likely be fine in tourist hotspots like Rome, Florence, and Venice, if you plan to step off the typical tourist track, you should consider learning some Italian. If you’re planning to house-sit in a small town or rural area, especially, bring a good phrasebook and learn some basics before you go.

Personal Space
As with house-sitting in Spain, visiting Italy and making Italian friends and acquaintances might require a shift in your mentality when it comes to personal space. Italy is what culture experts call a contact culture, and people from these countries prefer less personal space and better tolerate invasions of their personal space than those from non-contact cultures. In fact, Italians were found to be the 10th most likely to invade your personal space!

In high contact cultures such as Italy, people from low contact cultures (English-speaking cultures, as well as Northern France) may be surprised by:

  • Lots of direct eye contact.
  • Being mistaken for being cold and aloof. Try to compensate with being more lively than you would be at home.
  • More frequent touching than your may be used to. If you’re worried about this, find an escape route that’s not offensive, such as going to get something from your bag, and then re-establishing a comfortable personal space. If you do this, however, be aware that your Italian host may feel uncomfortable!

Final Tips for Applying to House-sitting Assignments in Italy

Although no culture has a set of “one-size fits all” rules, it’s worth considering how your own culture differs from Italian culture, both before and throughout your house-sit. Along with the tips above, we hope these additional recommendations will help Nomador members be successful during their next house-sitting application or experience in Italy.

  • Politeness: While Italians have a reputation for being a fairly relaxed bunch, it’s best to err on the side of being polite when applying for a house-sit or meeting a homeowner, especially if they are older than you. Your best bet is to use the polite “Lei” form of Italian until asked to do otherwise. Learn a few introductory phrases before you go, as well as the phrase, “Possiamo darci del tu?” (May we switch to the “tu” form?). If you’d like to learn more about the polite and informal forms of Italian, this article provides a practical introduction.
  • Language: Try to learn some basic Italian before you go, especially if you plan to be spending time outside the main tourist centres. As with all cross-cultural experiences, don’t assume the homeowner speaks your own language, and make an effort by starting your house-sitting application message in Italian. Egregio Signore (for men) and Egregia Signora (for women) is a good way to begin a letter, and the phrase, Mi dispiace, ma non parlo bene l'italiano (I’m sorry I don’t speak Italian), is also helpful!
  • Appearance: If you have a call with an Italian homeowner, don’t assume your standard “at home” look will cut it. Men should put on a smart shirt and ensure their visible parts are well manicured (hair, beard, etc). Women should do their hair and makeup, and dress smartly. When you first meet a homeowner in person, pay attention to your appearance.
  • Patience: As with all cross-cultural interactions, being patient is important. While things like punctuality, queue-jumping, and strikes may frustrate you at first, remember that learning to adapt and appreciate another culture’s way of doing things is part of the experience, and try to shift your own expectations rather than cultivate feelings of frustration!
  • Regionality: What is normal in Southern Italy might be totally different in Northern Italy; and what is standard practice in the villages is likely quite different in the cities. When in doubt, follow the lead of a local and remember that Italians are quite forgiving of foreigners trying to understand their language and culture.

Final Thoughts

With ancient metropolises, quaint, rural villages, and everything in between, Italy has a wealth of opportunities for all types of house-sitters. Whether you’d prefer a modern flat in central Rome, or a restored castle in the south, opportunities to explore this beautiful country abound. We hope this guide has helped you get started, and has provided a helpful introduction to what you can expect when it comes to cultural differences in Italy. As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and questions.


Katie Matthews
Wandertooth.com

Living as full-time travelers for three years, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, recently settling in Budapest to focus on their business creating travel-themed adult colouring books and writing their travel blog, wandertooth.com. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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