Culture Shock in Italy & What I Didn’t Consider

Raise your hand if you thought you wouldn’t experience severe culture shock when moving from the United States to Europe… 🙋‍♀️ Yep. That’s me.

I had heard of culture shock in the past, but I never really thought too much about it.

I always associated it with how I might feel moving to a third-world country from America. For instance, an ex of mine was an archaeologist who completed digs throughout rural India, and when he described culture shock, I understood. He was sleeping on the ground in huts and squatting over holes to go to the bathroom.

What average American wouldn’t have trouble adjusting to that?

But when I decided to move from South Florida to Northern Italy in early 2024, I didn’t think I’d come up against conditions that would test me the same way. Since Italy is a developed country with many similar infrastructures to the US, I thought the adjustment would be somewhat of a breeze.

Let me be the first to admit: that mindset was completely naïve.

That’s not to say I haven’t been enjoying my time here.

I have!

It’s a breathtakingly beautiful country with amazing food, and in many ways, it’s superior to the US. It’s safer. They treat their employees more like humans. They have stricter health guidelines for their food and products. Health care is way cheaper and more accessible. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

There are many things to love about being in Italy, and I’m so grateful I made the move.

Culture Shock in Italy - Weekend Trip to Milan
I mean, I can take weekend trips to Milan to visit medieval castles. What is my life?

However, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows since I got here.

It’s been exponentially harder to adapt than I expected. Even after more than two months, I still feel like a complete fish out of water, and it’s taken a huge toll on my mental health. 

So, instead of blindly believing you’ll land in a new country and magically figure everything out right away, let me demystify culture shock for you a little bit. Keep reading to learn about my culture shock experiences in Italy and how I’m navigating them.

Hopefully, sharing my slip-ups will prevent you from making the same mistakes!

Table of Contents

What Is Culture Shock?

Before I go too much further, let’s take a second to actually define culture shock. You know…in case it’s been more of a vague concept to you that, like me, you hadn’t given much thought to previously.

According to Merriam-Webster, culture shock is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”.

When it’s put like that, it’s no wonder I’ve been having a difficult time!

It sounds like just about anyone who moves to a foreign country would have at least some degree of culture shock. The good news is that I’m about to share all the things that have caused me confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety since I’ve been here, so maybe it’ll give you some of the preparation I didn’t have.

Culture Shock Examples (and How to Deal with Them)

1. Language Barriers

This is probably the most obvious example of culture shock, and it’s the number one challenge I’ve faced since I’ve been here. Not being able to express yourself the way you’re used to is hard.

That probably sounds like common sense, but it’s turned out to be so much more complex than I initially considered. I knew it would be difficult to get around without speaking the language, but what I didn’t prepare myself for, was how much it would affect my self-esteem and identity.

I’m naturally really bubbly, friendly, and approachable. I’ve been able to lean on those strengths every time I’ve been in a new situation in my life, like switching schools, changing jobs, or moving cities.

Here, those powers are completely useless since I can’t communicate with anyone I cross paths with. In fact, I feel like I have to actively shrink away from social interaction now. I don’t feel like myself at all.

Back in America, I was the type of person to strike up a conversation with anyone. Cashiers, bartenders, Uber drivers – you name it.

I’ve always loved connecting with people and learning their stories. But when I’m out and about in Italy, I am careful to stay out of anyone’s way. I keep to myself to avoid awkward situations where someone might try to tell me to do something that I don’t understand. 

Not being able to communicate here has left me with a void I didn’t have before.

It’s been lonely, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that integrating here is going to take a lot longer than I expected. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though!

How to Deal with Language Barriers

  • Start practicing way ahead of time.
    I started studying Italian (daily) on Duolingo six months before getting here, and it wasn’t enough. While I know a ton of words, I don’t really have any grasp on conjugating verbs, which makes it really hard to put complete sentences together. Duolingo is fun and easy to commit to, but I recommend supplementing it with other sources that go more in depth on grammar and sentence structure.

  • Incorporate learning into your daily routine.
    For instance, as you’re doing chores like laundry or dishes, practice saying the name of each item you pick up in the language you’re trying to learn. Seeing something, holding it, and saying the name of it at the same time helps your memory retain it better. My boyfriend and I have been doing this as we’ve been building a Lego set he got for his birthday, and it’s helped me learn so many new vocab words!

  • Take a class.
    If you have the time and budget, a language class is the way to go. Not only will it help you learn faster than studying on your own, but it will also help introduce you to people in your new area!

  • Get a private tutor or language partner.
    If you’re intimidated by the classroom setting, try hiring a private tutor or finding someone who wants to do a language swap with you. I find it less intimidating to learn from someone who is also learning from me at the same time. It feels like a more even playing field.

2. Customer Service Differences

Before now, I really wouldn’t have thought that America had friendly customer service, but it absolutely does.

Occasionally, you’ll catch someone who doesn’t give a shit or is maybe having a bad day, but for the most part, you get pretty good service in America – especially at restaurants.

It’s a totally different experience in Europe.

I’ve been to England, Spain, and Italy this year, and most of the servers were pretty inattentive and showed very little personality. They can take a very long time to come take your order, and they hardly check on you throughout the meal.

It’s most likely because tipping isn’t a thing here the way it is in America, so the waitstaff makes the same money no matter what their quality of service is.

I’ve also found that you’re just kind of expected to know what to do in a lot of situations that you may not be used to navigating.

For example, when I got off the plane in Venice, one of my bags was missing. And it wasn’t just any bag. It was my guitar, which originally belonged to my dad, who passed away last year.

To say I was distraught is an understatement.

I found a help desk to report missing luggage, and there wasn’t a line of anyone waiting, so I just walked up to one of the service windows. The woman I approached looked at me like I was crazy.

Given that I don’t speak Italian, communication was dicey, and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. She got a bit exasperated and finally came out to bring me to a machine on the wall where I was supposed to get a number to be assisted.

Once I got my number, I got called up to a different window. This new lady couldn’t have been less pleased to be helping me. I immediately did my best to explain what my situation was and apologized that I was American and didn’t speak Italian, but she was a total bitch.

She snapped at me repeatedly and had absolutely no patience or sympathy for my situation. She did finally manage to track down the guitar after a very stressful half hour, and I thanked her profusely.

But the whole thing left a really bad taste in my mouth.

It took everything in me not to cry when this was my first interaction in my new country – a place I had chosen to move to. The culture shock hit me hard and fast.

Thankfully, not every interaction has been so stressful. I have encountered some genuinely wonderful people in customer service here as well.

It’s just a mixed bag.

I still get nervous every time I have to tackle a new situation, but I’m working on developing better coping skills.

How to Deal with Customer Service Differences

  • Do your research.
    Any time you are going to be in a situation you’re not used to, I would recommend doing some Googling first. Being that you’re reading this right now, you’re probably pretty proactive when it comes to research. Keep up that spirit even after you make your move. There are blogs and videos on pretty much any topic you can think of. Check them out as needed. It gives me way more peace of mind to have at least some idea what to expect in a new situation.
  • Adjust your expectations.
    Remember that just because service and protocols are different in your new country doesn’t mean they are wrong. As with anything new, you’ll learn the ropes and get the hang of things eventually. Stay patient and be as adaptable as you can. Apologize when you get things wrong, but don’t beat yourself up. Just learn from the experience and move on.
  • Plan ahead at restaurants.
    You don’t get tap water for free in Italy (or many other countries). If you want water, order a bigger bottle of it than you think you may need. Why? Because if you run out, good luck flagging down the server to bring you another one. In fact, do your best to order every single thing you need up front because once you put your order in, you may not see your server again for a majority of the meal.
Culture Shock in Italy - Italy Food and Service
But really, how mad can you get when you’re regularly enjoying some of the world’s best meats, cheeses, and wine?

3. New Driving Rules & Etiquette

Even though my American driver’s license is valid in Italy for one year, I haven’t even attempted to drive here because I feel intimidated! There are a lot of differences from what I was used to back in the US. 

Here are just a few examples:

  • You can’t make a right on red.

  • The highway on-ramps are extremely short, and drivers in the right lane hardly ever pay attention to whether you are trying to enter. Hardly anyone proactively moves out of the way or makes space for you to merge in.

  • Instead of intersections with lights, there are more often huge roundabouts with two lanes going around the circle.

  • Everything is in kilometers, which means limits on the highway often go over 100, which seems so high!

  • There are speed checkers randomly placed throughout cities, and if they catch you speeding, you get a big fine.

I’ll get used to it in time, I’m sure. But I kind of have to deprogram my American habits first.

And make sure you check the rules for driving tests wherever you plan to move! I only realized after moving here that they do not offer driving tests in English. So, if I ever want to drive here in the long term, I have to wait until I am fluent enough in Italian to be able to take the test.

How to Deal with Driving in a Foreign Country

  • Look up all the rules and regulations.
    Think beyond just learning whether your existing license is transferable. Be sure to research all the differences in driving rules so you’re ready once you get to your new area. Italy even has rules around how much horsepower your car can have as a new Italian license holder. Info like that can help you decide whether to ship your existing car over or sell it and get a new one once you arrive.
  • Learn the area first.
    This is what I’m working on now. I know that I will feel more comfortable driving if I at least have some bearings. Worrying about new signs in a different language, new driving rules, and not knowing where I am is too much for me. Now that I’ve been here a few months, I am pretty familiar with my city, so navigating will be one less thing to worry about once I finally get behind the wheel. 
  • Embrace public transportation.
    I came from South Florida where public transport was barely a thing, so I’m not used to having so many options! The great thing about many foreign countries is how much public transportation is available. Driving isn’t even necessary in many places. Taking trains and buses made it so easy to get around England, Spain, and Italy.

4. Lack of Air Conditioning

Coming from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, lack of air conditioning was a huge culture shock experience for me.

South Florida is swelteringly hot for a majority of the year, and every single place you go has central A/C blasting. You might sweat a little bit walking to and from your car, but as soon as you get inside somewhere, you can immediately cool off.

Well, it’s not the same in Europe.

Not only do you walk outside in the heat much more, but there are also very few places with strong A/C to seek refuge in. There are some air conditioned places of course, but it’s definitely not as widespread as it is in the US.

How to Deal with a Lack of Air Conditioning

  • Get fans.
    Carry a small personal fan in your backpack or purse during the hottest times of the year. Since ceiling fans are also not common, you may need to get a standalone fan for your bedroom if you find it too hot to sleep well.
  • Dress smart.
    While I could sometimes get away wearing jeans in summer in Florida because of the A/C, it’s not advisable here. Skirts, dresses, and shorts are much more practical in the hottest months. Get breathable fabrics in light colors for maximum comfort.
  • Dine outside whenever possible.
    It was so hard for me to wrap my head around this. Why would I want to eat outside in the heat after I’d already been walking for hours? Oh, yeah, because the inside of the restaurant feels like a sauna as they don’t have A/C. Outside is always better if the restaurant doesn’t have air conditioning.

5. New Measurement Systems

The amount of culture shock this one caused, surprised me a lot!

Of course, I knew Italy was on the metric system, but I really didn’t anticipate how many facets of my everyday routine this would impact.

The first one that comes to mind is cooking. Even with recipes I’ve cooked a million times, I have to look up the conversions now since I don’t have American measuring cups anymore, and my oven is in Celsius. The problem is that when I hear something like “250 milliliters,” that means absolutely nothing to me.

I have no mental picture of how much that would be. I still think in cups and ounces and Fahrenheit.

Shopping for ingredients is also hard for this reason. I’m the kind of shopper that reads every single label. Being in unfamiliar stores with brands I haven’t heard of and labels written in Italian was already a challenge. Add in the fact that serving sizes are in grams and milliliters – it’s like complete gibberish to me!

It’s also hard to find ingredients that aren’t used in traditional Italian meals.

Finding cumin wasn’t easy, but we finally managed to make burrito bowls at home!

Measurement confusion also comes into play a lot with weather and getting dressed in the morning.

All the thermostats here are in Celsius. I learned how to do the conversion back in high school, but that was half my life ago. The learning curve has been steep for me with this one!

As I mentioned earlier, driving is also impacted because it’s kilometers instead of miles for speed and distance. You also have to learn how to convert pounds to kilograms for weighing yourself. And my boyfriend and I have been decorating our apartment, and everything I’m used to measuring in inches is now in centimeters.

Even though learning a new measurement system doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, I think the reason why it’s so disorienting is because it’s affected so many of my typical routines. With so much of my life changing at once, not being able to count on some of my most regular activities staying the same has been a bit of a mindfuck.

How to Learn New Measurement Systems

  • Get dual-sided measuring cups.
    Rather than clinging to your old American measuring cups, get measuring cups that have both ounces and milliliters. This allows you the flexibility to keep cooking the way you’re used to while also learning how those measurements correlate in the metric system. Same goes for food scales. Get ones that measures in both grams and ounces.
  • Use a weather app that displays both Fahrenheit and Celsius.
    Similar to the measuring cup tip, the quickest way to start learning Celsius is by figuring out how it correlates to the Fahrenheit temps you’re used to. I found one in the Apple App Store called Franz Fahrenheit (& Celsius) that displays both and uses data from the Apple weather app that I’m used to.
  • Lean on Google and smart assistants.
    I keep a Google measurement converter as an open tab on my phone at pretty much all times. I end up using it almost daily. If my hands are full, asking Siri or Alexa for a quick conversion also comes in handy!  

6. Smoking Prevalence

Smoking cigarettes is way more popular in Europe than in the US.

I’ve never been a smoker, and I can count the number of my close friends who smoke on one hand. In most American cities, smoking is not allowed indoors at all, and it’s often even prohibited within certain distances of a building.

Italy is nowhere near as strict when it comes to smoking. My boyfriend and I are just about the only ones in our friend group who don’t smoke cigarettes or vape. Because a lot of dining is outdoors due to the lack of A/C, it’s not uncommon to be seated near someone who is smoking.

It’s been rough for me.

In a lot of social situations, I’ve struggled to stay in the thick of things when everyone is smoking. I find myself wandering away a lot to get fresh air and a break from the smell.

How to Deal with More Smoking Than You’re Used to

  • Stay on the periphery.
    If you position yourself at the end of a table or the edge of a group of people, it’s easier to excuse yourself as needed. During a barbecue a few weeks ago, I made the grave mistake of sitting smack dab in the center of a table of all my boyfriend’s coworkers. All but one were smoking, and it was impossible to get up without asking half the table to move. 
  • Be honest.
    I’ve found that most people are understanding if you express that the cigarette smoke is bothering you but there’s nowhere you can go to get away from it. Obviously, this works better when you already have some rapport with the person.

7. Lack of Diversity

This one is a biggie.

I didn’t realize what a true melting pot of cultures I was used to until I got to Italy. Growing up in South Florida, my classes and activities were always filled with kids from all backgrounds and cultures. I grew up eating cuisines from all across the world, and I rarely had friend groups of strictly American people.

In Italy, nearly everyone is Italian with light skin and dark hair. It’s rare to see anyone who doesn’t look like that.

I have seen a few people who don’t fit that description, but they are absolutely the exception and not the rule. As a white girl with brown hair and Italian heritage, I blend in, but I wonder how I would feel living here if I didn’t. It’s definitely something to consider when choosing your destination.

And while Italian food is awesome and there are various restaurants with different cuisine, I miss all the options I had in Florida. Back in Fort Lauderdale, I could order delicious versions of pretty much any cuisine I desired – especially authentic Latin food!

My boyfriend told me that it’s only been within the last two decades that Italy started embracing restaurants serving non-Italian food.

His parents have almost no concept of non-Italian dishes. My boyfriend requested burrito bowls and margaritas for his birthday, so we made them for his whole family, and his parents loved them but had never had anything even remotely like that before. It blew my mind!

How to Deal with a Lack of Diversity

  • Choose a larger city.
    The most diverse areas of any country are always the big cities that draw tourists and immigrants from all over the world. Even in a largely homogenous country like Italy, you can find a wider range of people in the bigger cities, such as Rome and Milan.
  • Seek out groups and activities that draw a diverse crowd.
    I suggested a language class earlier, and that would be the perfect setting to meet people from all different countries and cultures.
  • Stay connected to those outside of your new community.
    The great thing about modern technology is that we are all connected. If your new area isn’t as diverse as you would like, make sure you keep in touch with your friends back home on a regular basis. You can also join online communities to forge new friendships worldwide. A few of my absolute closest friends are people I met in Facebook groups and Instagram. 
  • Use it as a learning experience.
    Even though I am part Italian by blood, I am culturally very American. I may look like a majority of the people here, but I don’t act like them. I learn new things about the culture here every single day. And even though a majority of the food is Italian, it’s not Italian the way Americans eat Italian food. I’m having so much fun trying new things!
My first bowl of homemade pasta alla carbonara—yum!

Other Ways Italy Surprised Me

I wouldn’t go as far as to say the following things caused me culture shock, but they are different from what I’m used to.

I’d say they were pleasant surprises, though!

1. Sustainability

I’m not exactly the world’s most eco-conscious person, but I have tried to make swaps wherever I can to do my part.

For instance, I use metal or silicone straws, I carry a refillable water bottle with me everywhere, and I switched from disposable makeup wipes to a washable microfiber cloth. I always recycled when it was an option, but unfortunately, in South Florida, many of the apartments I lived in did not have good (or any) recycling systems.

Italy is next level compared to anywhere I’ve lived in the US.

There are separate receptacles for every single type of recyclable, including composting, and residents are required to adhere to the system. If you are caught failing to recycle or misusing any of the receptacles, you can be fined thousands of dollars.

They also have strict rules about energy consumption. It can be annoying to not be able to do things at certain times, but at the end of the day, if every country and community operated this way, our planet would be in way better shape.

I love living in a place where everyone takes sustainability way more seriously.

2. Bidets

Before coming to Italy, I had only the vaguest idea what a bidet was. I thought it was a toilet-looking thing that sprayed water up your ass.

Technically, there are high-tech versions that do that, but the ones in Italy aren’t usually like that. Typically, they’re a cross between a toilet and a sink – a small basin with a faucet.

Italians are very into bidets.

It’s probably the number one thing my boyfriend missed about Italy when he was spending time in the US. I thought it was more of a guy thing, but now that I’ve gotten used to using a bidet, I’m wondering why they aren’t more widespread. They are so useful and convenient—especially during a certain time of the month for my fellow ladies!

3. Fashion

Okay, so this one does give me a little culture shock, but I enjoy it!

People in Italy are so effortlessly fashionable. I feel like people can always tell I’m not Italian by the way that I dress. As a total girly girl who loves to shop, it’s been so fun to observe the style here and get inspired.

I’m so excited to start elevating my personal style with some Italian influence.  

4. Stronger Relationships

I had to save the best for last.

Italians’ concept of relationships is so much stronger than what I’m used to.

When I told my boyfriend that it’s common in America to have close friends you may not talk to for weeks or months at a time, he couldn’t believe it. People here put so much effort into nurturing their friendships.

I first met some of my boyfriend’s friends when I was on a trip here in October 2023. We all went out for a barhop in Venice. That was the only time I spent with them. When I moved here in March, they threw a giant party to welcome me back. They also postponed another party they have annually so that it could happen after I got here because they didn’t want me to miss it. I couldn’t believe a group of 15 people I had only met once all agreed to rearrange their plans to include me.

It was so incredibly touching.

Culture Shock in Italy - New Friends
The Venice bar crawl crew who welcomed me with open arms. So grateful for their friendship!

My Final Thoughts on Culture Shock

Moving to another country is no joke. It is way harder than I anticipated, and it’s going to take me a while to truly settle in.

By the same token, it’s also one of the most enriching experiences I’ve ever embarked on. There is so much to be learned from different cultures and ways of life. I’m challenging myself and growing in new ways every single day, and I’m so thankful I took the leap.

If you want to keep up with my expat journey, feel free to follow me on Instagram!

Laura is new to digital-nomad life and excited to be documenting parts of her journey with DNG! In 2020, she used her marketing and copywriting background to launch an online biz teaching singles how to perfect their dating profiles, but her old 9-5 lured her back for a few years. Ultimately, she realized her heart was still in entrepreneurship and travel, so she handed in her notice in March 2024 and headed to Europe!
Picture of Laura Hucke
Laura Hucke
Laura is new to digital-nomad life and excited to be documenting parts of her journey with DNG! In 2020, she used her marketing and copywriting background to launch an online biz teaching singles how to perfect their dating profiles, but her old 9-5 lured her back for a few years. Ultimately, she realized her heart was still in entrepreneurship and travel, so she handed in her notice in March 2024 and headed to Europe!

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