Living in Italy for the past year has taught me some lessons about cultural differences. A cultural difference is the way of doing something differently in one country compared to another country.


This difference doesn’t make one country is “better” than another country. There is no right or wrong way to do something. Many habits and traditions come from long histories and common values. Often people try to compare cultural differences by saying things like, “Oh this country has the right idea.” It’s in our nature to compare things, but some things just can’t be compared. It’s just the way it is!


1. Meeting at a restaurant


A few months ago I reserved a table at a nice restaurant with some friends for my birthday. The reservation was for 8pm. I arrived at 7:15pm because I had never gone to that particular place before and I wanted to be on time. Since I was with a friend of mine, we sat at the table and ordered a beer while we waited for our other friends to come and join us.


8pm. 8:15pm. 8:20pm… no one came. We were confused about what was going on, and started talking about cultural differences--in particular, how some cultures do not consider lateness to be rude. We thought our friends were simply late!


Suddenly we got a phone call from one of our friends. “Are you coming?” they asked, worried. “We’ve been waiting outside for 10 minutes!”


We were told that in Italy, people wait for each other outside the meeting place. They all go in together. If someone is going to be late, they may go inside with the group, but they wait for that person to come before they order drinks or food.


On the other hand, in Canada, we book a reservation under one person’s name and then we go directly to the table inside the restaurant. Maybe it’s a matter of survival! You can’t stand outside when it’s -20 degrees outside.


2. Waiting in a line


Canadian people like to wait in a line (a queue). You will find people forming a line when they are trying to buy concert tickets, movie tickets, waiting for a store to open, or ordering at a café like Starbucks. Canadians are not as serious about it as the British who will “queue up” at the bus stop.


Canadians line up. The British queue up. (We use the preposition “up” to form a phrasal verb meeting, to stand in a line/queue).


However in Italy, it’s a different story. It’s not part of Italian cultural practice to form a line. It’s not rude to push in front of someone else to order coffee, for example. If you are standing at a café and not ordering, someone will assume that you are waiting for a friend, or that you have been served already. If you want to be served, you need to speak up!


3. The check


When you order at a restaurant in Canada, be prepared for the waiter to give you the check right away, sometimes it even comes with your dessert! You can take your time to eat your food, but it’s given to you beforehand so that you can prepare.


On the other hand, in Italy, it’s considered rude for a waiter to give you your check right away. You have to ask for it. You can sit for hours over a meal and the staff won’t bring you the check out of their own initiative, as they don’t want you to feel rushed.


From a perspective of a Canadian in Italy, this can make you feel like you’re not been given enough attention from a wait staff—it’s as if you’ve been forgotten about! Rest assured, that is not the case.


For an Italian in Canada, it could feel like the wait staff is prompting you to leave right away.


They say that when you’re in Rome, you should “do as the Romans do!” My advice is to keep an open mind when travelling and understand that what may seem strange or even rude to you is just a difference in culture. Observe other people carefully and see how they react to certain situations to figure out if what you are experiencing is simply a misunderstanding.


Where have you been and what cultural differences have you found during your travels?  Let us know in the article discussion!


Hero Image (Restaurant) by twicepix (CC BY-SA 2.0)