Basic human nature suggests our personalities are multi-faceted. It seems it doesn’t take much in the way of a perceived unfriendly situation to cause us to revert to a more primitive, self-protecting response. On the surface, it appears to be very contradictory that in one context a person can be the model of consideration and then in another, the same person can be down right inconsiderate. We have seen this seeming paradox in others and, when we are being honest with ourselves, we have probably seen it in our own behavior.
We are in Italy now looking to develop a yardstick to use in situations involving interaction with others. I think we have come to recognize at this early stage, lacking a good database to work from, there is a clear danger in jumping to conclusions too early on how another culture works. First, there is the obvious language problem. A mature language has layers of nuance and subtlety that are opaque when you are trying to squeak by in accomplishing some of the more basic, life tasks.
Then right along with inadequate language capability is the absence of a seat-of-the-pants orientation to what is still a fundamentally different culture. One of the pre-eminent, early leaders in modern psychotherapy was Carl Jung who came up with the concept of the ‘Collective Unconscious.’ That is to suggest we carry in our makeup an imprint of our distant, cultural past. However much some of us associate our genetic strain to have been made up of an ancestry rooted in Europe, America of the past 300 years has been a very different place. It is probably not too extreme to suggest that there may be some elements of an ‘American Personality’ that are different from an ‘Italian Personality.’
We do correctly see Italians as a warm and generous people. But then the problem arises as to how we should interpret some other behavior we observe demonstrating what to an American would be considered a clear lack of consideration. In Italy, there is an expression, ‘furbo,’ in other words, a ‘sly one.’ One who acts in blatant disregard to the equities of others such as sneaking ahead in line. The behavior is often conducted with an air of ‘entitlement’ that should transcend scrutiny. It happens often enough that some Italians seem generally indifferent to it as in ‘that’s just the way it goes.’ Rarely do we see any of the disadvantaged Italians making any more than a perfunctory response. As suggested above, these same ‘furbo’ might be delightful to sit across from in sharing a bottle of wine. Is there a contradiction here? In reality, it is too early to tell.
There is an interesting Italian response to this all too common occurrence of not respecting order of arrival determining order of service. By comparison, the English are OCD on the matter of a queue, an ordered line determining order of boarding or other service. It has been said, a solitary Englishman standing at a bus stop is nothing more than the first person in a line that has yet to form. On the other hand, Italians make a point of haphazardly milling about in the general area. We have decided this has at least two purposes; (i) if someone makes a move to cut ahead, they might be intercepted and cut off; or (ii) and more likely, it creates a vantage point to cut in themselves. And why not, someone else was going to do it anyway so why not me? There has been some institutional response to this kind of familiar occurrence. The Italian Postal Service, for example, has installed a ‘take a number’ system at its service counters to frustrate the ‘furbo.’
Is there an underlying contradiction at work or not? People who are so open, friendly and go to some length to make you comfortable could cut in front of someone on line tomorrow morning. We don’t know the answer to that one and I’m not sure we ever will. We sense many of our Italian friends haven’t figured it out either. And we won’t elaborate on the issue of how some Italians drive. Eval Knieval would not be comfortable here. Too many Italians behind the wheel or on motorcycles upstage his act every day. All I’ll say is at this point I have yet to get comfortable with the risk management factor to which some Italian drivers are willing to subject us.
We Americans are not equipped to relate to the long cultural history Italians carry in their ‘collective unconscious.’ These are a people who have adopted a generally inherent stoic response to the world. They have been subjugated and dominated by more powers and forces than a holder of a Master’s Degree in European History can recite. It has been less than two hundred years since much of Italy was still organized into what was nothing less than a vestige of medieval feudalism. The absolute authority of the Roman Emperors was replaced by a strongly authoritarian and hierarchical church that told them the maintenance of the status quo was God’s plan and that suffering in this world was necessary for entrance into the life yet to come. The church has made coverts and enforced compliance through graphic images of hell’s torment and the inevitable punishment to which all appear doomed. Given that perspective, can anyone question the possible origin of a sense of futility bordering on cynicism? The current, deep economic recession, with little sign of recovery, does little to offset that perception. Should we be surprised by a heightened survival self interest to set in among some Italians?
Might it also explain contempt for authority and the distrust of government (viz. Berlusconi in the present context). Then there are the scandals involving the only hope of their salvation, the church. Over a long history, there have been the ravages of wars, plagues, economic disasters and the impunity with which some forms of blatant dishonesty seem to prevail. As far as accepting regimentation and being compliant, Italians make cats look downright docile in accepting being herded. Is there any surprise of an inclination ‘to fundamentally look out for yourself because no one else can be counted on?’
What we are beginning to sense there may be an important component in the Italian extroverted personality to reach out and form a closely-knit protective cocoon around themselves. As much as anything else, you need to know just whom you can trust. The friends-of-friends is more than just a comfortable social relationship. This is a tightly bound network based on the all-important element of trust. Outside that circle is another dimension. Outside, these are people you can’t be sure of. It is not hard to develop feelings of mistrust – simply based on the absence of a reason to have trust.
There is a strong loyalty and absolute assurance of support and acceptance one gets primarily from family. Going out from the core is the next concentric ring of one’s closest friends. And then comes the next circle of the familiar community. Italians have an expression about the place they feel most comfortable, their ‘home’ community, or the ‘Campanile,’ named from the parish church bell tower – the symbol of home that can be seen from a distance. This is where bonds of trust have been formed probably over generations. This is where I can feel safe. Within the environment of the inner circle, a behavior considered inconsiderate would be labeled, ‘Bruta Figura,’ to have brought disrespect upon yourself. Within the circle of trust, friends-of-friends bestow exceptions to processes and exchange other favors to authenticate the bond that we are protecting each other.
Across a certain distance from the center of that kind of trust and comfort zone, it can become an environment where I can no longer feel my equities will be considered. The further out from the inner circle of trust one goes, the lower the confidence of having mutual support. So, if they aren’t watching out for me, why should I watch out for them? The lower one’s sense of security in a given situation, the lower the constraint barrier in exercising self interest over the interests of others. At a sufficient distance from the all-important inner circle, constraints become diluted and besides, ‘I just did it to them before they could do it to me.’
It appears even language patterns may reinforce the concept of ‘us vs. them.’ In spite of very increased mobility and interaction, Italian dialect can apparently be sufficiently different from towns and villages no more than ten kilometers apart to be able to identify a speaker as ‘other’ – not one of ‘us.’ Just as in the U.S., particularly among the younger generations who want to assimilate, there may be some inclination to ‘homogenize’ speech to minimalize difference. But, particularly in the older generations, language difference is a badge of identity that reinforces who we are against an ever-encroaching world you just can’t trust.
Against this backdrop, we have been amazed at our reception here in Ascoli. True, we have made it a point to make it known we chose Ascoli because this is where we want to be. But we continue to be delighted that, by-and-large, the response we get is, ‘Welcome!’ Underlying it all, there is a strong sense of common community still alive here in Ascoli. This also may explain why we feel so comfortable here. Do we see occasional inconsiderate behavior? – Of course we have. But these are largely a friendly and considerate people and as time goes by, our circle of close mutual friends is growing. In starting to feel more like a part of the community ourselves we have a natural growing sense of comfort and security. Nothing trumps the comfort and security of feeling accepted.
We are still watching and trying to absorb what is going on around us. Perhaps it is the intensity with which we perceive Italians. Their personalities are right out there. Perhaps that is why their positive attributes stand out so much. Then why wouldn’t it follow that the occasional negative might not also seem less than subtle? So, it will take awhile yet before we better understand what is really a contradiction in behavior and what is at root a difference in the long history that has determined what it is to be an Italian.