Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do Italian males live up to reputation for persistent and flirtatious behavior?

Before I began going to Italy regularly, I wondered about the reputation of Italian men as aggressive, flirting Casanovas. Was that a misconception, or did I need to worry about bringing my daughters to Italy? Anybody seriously interested in Italian culture has probably seen Ruth Orkin’s famous photo “American Girl in Italy,” which probably did more to ingrain the image of the aggressive Latin lover into the public's consciousness than any other symbol. But that was taken in 1951; times change, so did I still need to be concerned? During the year we spent in Padova in 2001-02, we had ample opportunity to put this question to the test, as we brought with us Suzye and Lindsey, then 16 and 14.
"American Girl in Italy" by Ruth Orkin

Their conclusion? The stereotype is partly true, they said, but they never felt threatened or seriously harassed. Most of the time they were approached, it was in tourist areas such as the train or bus stations, and the guys never did anything more than persistently try to make conversation. “A lot of the times we got hit on more aggressively it was from immigrants hanging around the train station, not Italians,” Suzye said.

“Ciao, bella,” was the cliché opening line the girls remember the most, but they also recall many other approaches. The first sentence was usually in Italian, but when that drew a blank, the pursuers would say, “You speak French? You speak English? Oh, you want a coffee. You are so beautiful. I love you. I must see you again, baby.”

The girls were very rarely approached this way in non-tourist areas or by the boys in the Italian school they attended. It seems that foreign girls were usually the targets, and if boys didn’t know they were outsiders, the girls had nothing to worry about. At first, it was a novelty and they played along to see what else the boys would say. However, the boys usually knew limited English and the conversations never progressed very far, so the girls quickly grew tired of the game and learned how to avoid being approached.

“Just don't look at them in the first place,” Suzye said. “If you give them eye contact, then they'll talk to you. If you walk confidently and just look at the ground, they won’t approach you.

“And if they do, even if it’s just innocent questions like where are you from, don’t answer because they’ll think you’re interested and will keep asking more questions.”

Lindsey said she made up a story that she often used. “I said my name is Miya and I’m from New York and that I don’t remember my phone number. The last part was actually true.”

Then Suzye struck on a different idea, asking for the boys’ phone numbers instead. This seemed to give the pursuers the feeling that they had at least partially accomplished their goal. “I'm waiting for your call, beautiful,” one told her as the girls walked away.

Lindsey tried this approach and was particularly pleased when one boy couldn’t find a piece of paper to write down his number and so wrote it on a lira banknote.

Often the girls would go out with their bilingual Italian friend Erica, who pretended that she too was a foreign student who spoke only English. The girls would share a coffee or tea with a group of boys they had just met while the boys would try out their limited English on the girls. But the boys would also talk among themselves in Italian, not realizing that Erica could understand everything and translate any interesting comments about the girls into English for Suzye and Lindsey.

Lucy had her own experience with an aggressive male in Bassano de Grappa. She stopped at a bakery to ask for directions, and the young man at the counter referred her to a customer in his 60s who spoke some English and said he could help her. However, the old man was not about to give the directions without asking for a little something in return. He tried to hold her hand, but Lucy pulled it away. He tried again several times without success, and then he asked her to sit and have tea with him. His speech was slurred and mixed with profanities, and Lucy smelled liquor on his breath.

She kept asking for the directions she needed, but he kept delaying. He began telling her about himself. He was a professore from India who took care of disabled children. He loved his children and would do anything for them. Lucy looked pleadingly at the bakery employee, who seemed sympathetic and a bit exasperated. He spoke to the professore and tried to get him to just give the directions. Lucy was perhaps too patient and polite, but she continued to pull her hand away, interrupt and ask for directions. The professore finally forgot about his charm, grabbed her hand again and told her to shut up. She pulled her hand away for the last time and walked off as his angry denunciations following her out the door.

Of course I never got to witness any of these incidents in person, except for one memorable occasion. We were riding on a train, and Suzye and Lindsey were sitting about three seats away from us. The seats directly across from them became vacant at one of the stops, and a group of three or four high-school-aged boys came down the aisle, sat down and tried to engage the girls in conversation. They seemed nice enough, but one in particular was persistent and fairly aggressive. The girls were politely saying no thanks to the boys. Lucy and I were watching with some amusement, but then the lead boy reached out and put his hand on Suzye’s knee while continuing to talk.

This dad had watched long enough—I stood and spoke loudly and firmly, “Basta! Non toccare!” I wanted to say more, but my language skills were too limited. Naturally I didn’t want to admit this, so I just remained standing and gave the boys what I hoped was a withering glare. The offending boy let loose a stream of apologetic Italian, something about only trying to be friendly and not meaning any harm, I think. I had no words to add, so I just continued to look stern while the boys moved on to the next car.

Later I thought of something I could have said, but that’s pretty much the way it goes whenever I try to speak Italian. I always think of something better to say five minutes after the conversation has ended. Anyway, I was pleased as it was that I had been able to come out with “Enough! You’re not to touch!” so convincingly that the boy must have thought I was Italian. But I wish I had added, “Potete parlare, ma non toccare.” You can talk but not touch.

Back to the original question, what about the stereotypical image of aggressive Italian males? The incidents I've described are the exception and not the rule. Overall, Lucy has spent about 20 months in Italy and only had one incident, and that professore was not native Italian. Suzye and Lindsey had more, but mainly in tourist areas, rarely out in the countryside. Admittedly they have been approached in Italy more often than they have been in America, although Suzye pointed out that she has spent most of her life in Washington state, explaining, “Here everyone is so passive and indirect, which is not the case in other places I've traveled.” However, they have not felt threatened in Italy and were always able to walk away. In truth, violent crime in Italy is much less common than it is in the United States and Great Britain. So although there is some truth to the aggressive Italian male image, I don’t hesitate to let my wife and daughters travel alone in Italy.

I would add to the advice Suzye gave by saying it would be advisable to dress modestly but also somewhat stylishly, which will make you blend in more with the Italian women. It would also be helpful to learn a few Italian phrases, such as vai via (go away) or mi lascia in pace (leave me in alone, or literally, leave me in peace). If these don’t help, one can make a scene, as I did on the train.
For follow-up information on this topic, read also
Is Italy a safe and healthy place for young women (and men)?


  1. Yes, well, you had to learn that lesson *after* you prohibited me from travelling around southern Europe during my exchange year :) But, I forgive you, because you are a great dad(and mom) and you came to travel with me, daddy, and then you let me travel around the rest of Europe instead. xox your oldest daughter

  2. Hi! I've been following your web site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to
    go ahead and give you a shout out from Porter Texas!
    Just wanted to say keep up the fantastic work!

  3. Thanks to the reader from Porter, Texas. "Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body." Proverbs 16:24.

  4. I've got to say we haven't seen too much that differentiates the modern Italiano from males in other countries we visit. Maybe we haven't been to the right (or wrong) places!


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