Italian Americans

Group Members: Kory Aspaas, Allyson Groven, Shawna Hruby, Todd Keatts, Laura Smith

Definition of Culture

Culture is the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

Italian Americans are distinct as a culture as they have their own sets of values and behaviors that are an amalgam of both American and Italian cultures and heritages.

Italian American Culture


  • High value is placed on life, good food and strong family.
  • Some members of this culture continue to value Italian holidays and traditions that set them apart from American culture, while others do not keep up these traditions, but rather ascribe to American holidays.  Some choose to integrate and celebrate both sets of holidays and traditions.
  • Many members of Italian American consider themselves Catholic.


  • Traditions in the Italian culture are incredibly dependent on region, so much that it is nearly impossible to ascribe any one celebration to the entire culture.
  • Tarantella is the most recognized style of folk dance.
  • Public celebrations for Columbus Day and  the feste, celebrations that honor patron saints, are also popular.  These are multi-day celebrations that have no religious or Italian national heritage affiliation, but remain popular in Italian culture.

Sense of Self/Space

  • During immigration, Italian Americans initially lived in close quarters as the earliest Italian American neighborhoods were overcrowded.  This attributed to the outside perception that these areas were crime ridden as they had very condensed and large populations.
  • Personal preference ultimately determines sense of self/space

Communication Style/Language

  • With over one million speakers, Italian is the fifth most spoken language in the U.S.
  • Italian newspapers emerged in major US cities in the early 19th and 20th centuries during major Italian immigration.  Some are still in print today.
  • During WWII, use of the Italian language declined as the government discouraged using the tongue of the enemy, resulting in the closure of language schools across the nation.
  • Popularity of learning and using the Italian language has rebounded in recent years. In college-level Italian language classes, enrollment rose 30% during the years of 1998-2002
  • There are even Italian language camps for children.


  • There is no typical style of dress in this culture.  Individuals dress to their region and personal style preferences.
  • Versace, Gucci, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Armani, and Fendi, to name a few, are all Italian fashion designers.

Food/Feeding Habits

  • In Italy, eating habits were on the frugal side as living conditions were often difficult.  Commonly featured foods were vegetables, grains, and coarse black bread.  Luxury foods featured pasta and meat.
  • Traditional Christmas dishes, depending on the region, were ravioli, eels, celery soup, and fat snails.
  • Eating habits changed upon migration to the U.S. as economic situations improved.  The Italian Americans were able to add more pastas, meats, sugar, and coffee to their staple foods.
  • Current Italian cooking usually equates to tomato sauce, heavily spiced dishes, pasta, and pizza.
  • Rice and corn dishes as well as butter based recipes have increased in prevalence recently.
  • Garlic, olive oil, mushrooms, and nuts are key ingredients.
  • Wine is a staple drink.

Time Consciousness

  • Traditionally, Italians eat dinner later in the evening, such as around 8PM.
  • Italians tend to be less punctual, but adhere to important times such as appointments, business meetings, and other scheduled events.
  • Appointments are conveniently made later in the morning.
  • It is considered socially acceptable to arrive 30minutes late to social gatherings.
  • It is important in Italian culture to set aside time for leisure.
  • July28-Aug3 tends to be a popular time for holiday.
  • These are all variable to personal preference and environment.

Relationships/Social Organization

  • As a guest, food and drink are offered in abundance.  It is appropriate to decline an offer once or twice before acceptance.  One shouldn’t accept unless it has been offered at least twice.
  • “Ciao” is only appropriately used in peer groups.
  • Traditional Italian families are patriarchal in society, but matriarchal in the home.
  • Values are family-centered.
  • An aspect of maintaining family honor is through protection of females and their chastity.
  • Generational tension was prevalent in the move to the U.S. as the children were more accustomed to the American culture while the parents were more deeply rooted in traditional Italian culture.
  • Initially, marriage was strongly intra-cultural and traditional Italian values were strongly maintained.  American practices became more popular once intercultural marriage became prevalent. 

Mental Process/Learning

  • In historic Italian culture, formal education was not valued as children were expected to contribute to the family as early as possible.  High value was placed on parental moral and social upbringing.  These attitudes continued through the immigration process, and parents perceived schools as removing children from the home and family environment.
  • Education was more socially acceptable in the 1920s-1930s as the 2nd and 3rd generations grew up in America, though many Italian Americans remained in the working class.
  • The Depression detracted from available jobs, but provided more educational opportunities for Italian Americans, which allowed for better jobs

Work Habits/Practices

  • Italian Americans are prominent in the Italian food, construction, and garment industries, as well as medicine, law, and education.
  • The 2000 census revealed that 66% of Italian Americans hold white collar jobs.
  • Italian American income averages $11,000 annually above the average income.
  • Italian Americans hold a higher level of education compared to the average American.

Jersey Shore

Jersey Shore is an MTV reality series about eight Italian American housemates who spend their summer at the Jersey Shore in August 2009.

The National Italian Foundation issued an official statement regarding MTV’s Jersey Shore:

We as Italian Americans must acknowledge that some within our community adhere to and embrace “guido” culture.  This is a small group, which has captured the nation’s attention.  But we must acknowledge that MTV’s program sends a harmful message that permeates pop culture, damaging the image and sensibilities of Italian Americans as a group.  Italian Americans, the Garden State and the Jersey Shore deserve better.

They explain that the term “guido” refers more to an East Coast lifestyle rather than Italian American culture.  There needs to be more accurate depictions of Italian Americans in the media in order to educate the public of the reality of Italian American culture.

Cast members are known by distinct self proclaimed “nicknames.”  Get yours here:

The Sopranos

11.9 million viewers watched The Sopranos finale in 2007.   This is impressive as HBO is available to 30 million homes.  The only show that topped The Sopranos that night was America’s Got Talent, which was available in a much higher number of homes.  While the HBO show was popular among U.S. television viewers, many disapprove of the image of Italian Americans portrayed. Samuel Alito Jr., a U.S. Supreme Court Justice from New Jersey who ascribes to the Italian American culture, asserts that The Sopranos stereotype Italian Americans to be gangsters, aggressive males, and to hold mafia associations, while this is not the case for most members of this population.

Little Italy

The Bronx, Manhattan, and San Diego have the three biggest Little Italy sites.  Though they are still popular places for Italian Americans to gather and socialize, both their size and populations have decreased.  In Manhattan, nearby China Town is growing and, in a sense, taking over, which pushes Italian Americans to move north.  They’ve formed a new area called Nolita.  Little Italy has become more of a tourist attraction rather than a place of residence.


  • Italian Americans have the highest population percentages in New Jersey (18.5%), Connecticut (19.8%) , and Rhode Island (20%).
  • New York has the highest number of Italian Americans with 2.7 million people.

This map shows areas of residence for Italian Americans across the U.S. The darker colors indicate higher populations.

Health Care Environment


Italian Americans used to be discriminated against in terms of medical school admission.  The percentage of enrolled Italian Americans was inversely proportional to the level of prestige associated with the medical school.  Italian Americans that graduated with degrees tended to work in only Catholic hospitals, or hospitals within their own communities.  Since the 1970s, the percentages of enrolled Italian Americans has increased, and Italian American health care providers can be seen in various settings.

Differences between Italian American culture and U.S. culture

In the article titled, Assumptions and blind spots in patient-centeredness: action research between American and Italian health care professionals, U.S. doctors and Italian doctors were given scenarios and instructed to write a dialogue between themselves and a patient to demonstrate how they would deliver care and interact with the patient.  These dialogues were shared and compared.  Doctors from both cultures agreed that core components of patient care were handling patient emotion and exploring the illness experience, though these were expressed in different ways in their dialogues.  The U.S. doctors also felt that respecting patient autonomy was important in providing care.  Italian doctors used a more “implicitly paternalistic approach.”


The article, Cultural comparison of symptoms: inpatients on maintenance hemodialysis, compared Italian American and U.S. patients on who were on hemodialysis.  The Italian Americans reported a higher burden of symptoms related to chronic hemodialysis as compared to the U.S. patients.  While the U.S. patients had more cases of diabetes mellitus, the Italian American patients reported a decrease in sexual interest, arousal and function as well as psychosocial effects including an increase in anxiety.  The article concludes that cultural background may affect a patient’s adaptation to chronic illness, specifically hemodialysis.

The effects of a cardiac rehabilitation program on health status among certain ethnic groups and between gender groups reports that Black patients have a significantly lower increase in improvement with cardiac rehabilitation programs for patients with heart disease than their Italian American and Jewish counterparts.  Males also improved more than females.  While the researchers could not find evidence for the differences among genders and ethnic groups, they concluded that everyone in the cardiac rehabilitation program showed improvement above those who received exclusively routine care.

Health risks/ high risk behaviors

1991 young Italian men were surveyed in a February 2010 article titled Determining factors for condom use: a survey of young Italian adults. Of those surveyed, 88% were sexually active and had their first sexual encounter at an average of 16.8 years old.  Only 52.6% of those who were sexually active used a condom during their most recent encounter.  Top reasons for not using condoms were:

  • Belief that condom use would lead to a problem between the couple
  • The condom was not immediately available
  • The partner didn’t accept that particular barrier method
  • The assumption of no risk
  • The fear of irritation
  • The belief that it doesn’t feel natural

There is a fear that this risk behavior could also be prevalent in young Italian American males.

Cultural taboos, notable points

Many Italian Americans who grew up in traditional Italian households learned traditional superstitions and rituals practiced for countless generations

  • There are multiple concepts referring to the “evil eye,” which is reflective of jealousy and envy. Coveting the possessions of another is believed to curse the owner, even if the envious party did not intend to bestow a curse.
  • One way to escape the evil eye curse is the use of the corno, or devil’s horn.  This is a hand signal or an amulet worn as a necklace that can be found in Italian jewelery stores or at Italian American festivals.  The hand signal is a gesture in which the pinky and index fingers are extended like a pair of horns and pointed down.
  • Holding this signal with the fingers extended upwards is an insult that implies the recipient’s husband or wife is unfaithful.

  • It is considered unlucky to have birds in the house; this belief may have Biblical origins when St. Peter denied Jesus thrice before the rooster crowed.
  • The number 13 is lucky, while the number 17 is unlucky.  When written in Roman numerals, it can be rearranged to spell vixi, “I have lied” in Roman.  When written in Arabic numerals, it resembles a man hanging from the gallows.
  • A loaf of bread must always be facing upwards to prevent bad luck.  This can be taken very seriously, especially on fishing boats as an upside-down loaf can lead to an empty net.  This belief reflects the importance of bread to an immigrant family.

Top 5 pointers for a health care provider

  1. Family is a very important part of culture, thus the family may be heavily involved with care and decision making.
  2. Certain issues, such as sex,  may be taboo to talk about within the family, so patients may feel it is appropriate to openly talk about them subjects with their health care providers.
  3. The average age of first sexual intercourse among young Italian men was 16.8 years, and roughly 50% of the most recent encounters did not feature a condom.
  4. As many Italian Americans consider themselves Catholic, they may prefer a priest to a hospital chaplain.  They may also hold Catholic views of contraception and abortion.
  5. Italian American patients may have had varying types of interactions with different health care providers.  There is a different style of care among Italian and U.S. doctors, where the Italian doctors are more paternalistic while the U.S. doctors emphasize patient autonomy.

Additionally, there are potential ethnic consideration to keep in mind when dealing with treatment for Italian American patients.


Bossola, M, Weisbord, S, Fried, L, Giungi, S, & Tazza, L. (2008). Cultural comparison of symptoms in patients on maintenance hemodialysis. Hemodial Int.,4, 434-40.

LaGumina, S, Cavaioli, F, Primeggia, S, & Varacalli, J. (1999). (1999). The Italian american experience an encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Inc..

LaGumina, S. (1973). Wop: a documentary history of anti-italian discrimination in the united states .

Lamiani, G., Meyer, E., Rider, E., Browning, D., Vegni, E., Mauri, E., et al. (2008). Assumptions and blind spots in patient-centeredness: action research between American and Italian health care professionals. Medical Education, 42(7), 712-720. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Romeo, K. (1988). The effects of a cardiac rehabilitation program on health status among certain             ethnic groups and between gender groups. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text  database.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: