LA BELLA FIGURA
We have been both delighted and surprised to learn that some of our Italian friends have been reading the Blog. Our original intent was to produce some observations that might be useful to family and close friends back in the U.S. It is also a means for us to keep a personal journal to provide reflections on what is happening in the new direction our lives are taking.
Our first surprise came in discovering that there were other people completely unknown to us who had come across the Blog and began to follow it. Out of that group of readers we have been contacted and some promising new acquaintanceships have begun to develop.
A few of our Italians friends told us that they began reading the Blog out of curiosity. They said they found it was providing them with a mirror on how Italian life in Ascoli Piceno was being perceived by people from a very different place. One of our Italian friends commented on the Blog discussion of La Bella Figura saying he found no quarrel with what was said but only that an Italian perceives the La Bella Figura idea to be quite complex and nuanced. At core, the concept is rooted in the effect one has on others and how that perception can determine how people are themselves perceived. It is clear, this is not a simple, black-or-white issue, but is a very gradational continuum with all sorts of factors involved.
In more common parlance, the idea of La Bella Figura can be misconstrued. La Bella Figura is more than just a commentary on a visual fashion presentation. La Bella Figura also includes a social interaction component. No matter how fashionably attired, a person displaying an overbearing arrogance or condescension would more likely be considered as embodying La Brutta Figura – the opposite of La Bella Figura.
But for us, attempting to identify La Bella Figura or La Brutta Figura involves applying judgments grounded in experience from another place. Caution is, therefore, very much in order. Actually, by now we have accumulated enough interpersonal experience to include an occasional instance of inconsiderate or even rude behavior that sure looked like La Brutta Figura to us. The only surprise would have been for us to be surprised that it could occur. No one else is perfect so why should we expect Italians to be an exception.
As we are presently beginning to understand the concept of La Bella Figura, there is both a visual perception of the person as well as a social interaction component. So the concept appears to be more of a matrix in which evidence of good taste in one’s attire is factored along with social grace. The social grace aspect La Bella Figura involves the extension of courtesy to those that are met. The ideal may be a projection of a relaxed social interaction that is open, accepting, and above all considerate and courteous. It projects respect and consideration by presenting oneself in a manner that avoids giving offense.
I recognize value in the easy social informality that prevails in America. But in that prevailing social dynamic, something valuable may have suffered. I’m probably showing my age but in my experience, social interaction has actually been much easier where some level of ‘manners’ were in evidence. I’m not promoting any extremes. There is no question that not getting beyond a rote regurgitation of social niceties is hollow, superficial and meaningless. But my experience has been the existence of some degree of social protocol is an excellent means to get a new social interaction off to a positive start. It sends an instant message, “I want this interaction to be mutually pleasant and enjoyable.”
I also have a sense, over time, some people in America have become more ill at ease in direct social interactions. Are people feeling more ‘alone in the crowd?’ To what extent are we retreating from society by hiding behind Smartphones with the ear-buds inserted? In America for example, we sense an increasing number of people are finding it difficult to directly engage by looking each other in the eye or display any ease in simply shaking hands. I have also sensed some members of a younger generation are very uncomfortable interacting across generational lines.
Against this backdrop we are still in process of deciphering the social code operating here in Ascoli. I continue to be fascinated by seeing Italians who have a very easy and confident way of making their strong sense of themselves evident but yet have an amiable, outgoing social grace in the process. We have commented elsewhere on a sense of larger community we feel here that I don’t think I can quite recall in America. People do naturally congregate in their own age groups here but not to the exclusion of interacting in cross-generational settings as well. The Italian predisposition to socialize demands that one has the capacity to broadly interact and to not limit one’s experience to any common denominator by which you might define yourself.
The concept of La Bella Figura is apparently alive and well here in Ascoli in the social chemistry in which we are immersed. On a daily basis we witness a commitment to the importance of ‘manners’ in how people interact. At any social gathering, there are bound to be varying degrees of acquaintanceship. The Italians we have met in social gatherings circulate on arrival and greet all present personally with an engaging, eye-to-eye contact and a smile plus a friendly handshake accompanied by the name by which they wish to be known. For those already better acquainted, the embrace is as natural as breathing. And then, of course, expressing the obligatory, “piacere” – ‘I’m pleased to meet you.’ This is social La Bella Figura in action.
Yes, visual La Bella Figura is also in evidence on the street everyday. Arlene has graciously given me ‘permission to look.’ Actually, it’s only fair. She is enjoying the aesthetics every bit as much as I am. And then there is the foundation of the La Bella Figura social component.
In the final analysis, we do think having a social expectation of following the forms for a positive social interaction is both attractive and beneficial. But ultimately, the question is whether the proper form in use is backed up with a real commitment to avoiding giving offense. And here the issue seems to be whether a functioning sense of empathy is involved that goes beyond just using the proper form. The visual La Bella Figura has a strong emphasis on appearance. The interpersonal La Bella Figura needs to go beyond appearance into meaningful concern for others. As newcomers, the initial risk has been to misconstrue positive social appearance for substance but we are progressing nicely beyond that stage.
Over time, we have been fortunate in finding a few new friends we can really count on. As our Italian language skills improve we seem to be improving the functionality of our ‘La Belle Figura meters’ in deciding on promising relationships. But on balance, we are pleased so far. At this stage, a personal definition we might add to the idea of La Bella Figura is it entails a willing capacity to make some foreign newcomers feel very much at home.