Italians Explained From The Inside Out

5 Oct

I have a unique post for you today. My post from yesterday touched a nerve with many of my readers. I am happy to report that I had a really generous outpouring of support and helpful thoughts and comments.

One reader in particular, whom I actually know personally quite well (lending credibility to why I’m publishing these thoughts) took the time to email me a detailed personal “explanation” of why Italians behave in some of the ways they often do.

Of course as I always reiterate on my blog, I don’t claim to know everything about any culture, and I don’t claim that any ONE person knows everything about any ONE culture. But I do enjoy putting observations out there, because they are valid, and they represent one person’s experience of their native culture, which can provide insights.

I want to share with you this Italian reader’s insights on their culture. This person has moved abroad now, and often times I find that Italians who have moved abroad have a unique perspective on their home culture. Many times they move away because they can’t tolerate a lot of the things about their country. But at the same time, this has given them a more critical eye of their country and allowed them to analyze it in a way that many who never leave, never do.

I explained it to one of my Italian friends living abroad thus: “You know how it is, for a fish swimming in water? The fish doesn’t know it’s in the water if it’s never left. But those who have left, they see the water from the outside and can see it for what it is.”

So here are some insights that I’ve translated from their original Italian into English, and I’ve tried to preserve the native voice as best as I could. Take it as a 101 primer on Italian ways of viewing the world, and let me know what you think.

Here are my opinions on Italians. I think they are correct. Maybe this can help you to solve some mysteries of the Italian culture …

1) Save face.
Italy is a Catholic country. Although many Italians today aren’t practicing Catholics, the cultural background is still Catholic. It’s so deeply rooted that many Italians don’t even realize they have it.
Basically Italians are moralists, religionists and traditionalists. And hypocrites, of course.
The basic concept is: do whatever you want, just make sure no one knows. Or rather, it ends up that everyone knows, but nobody talks about it openly.
For example, everyone’s parents know (so long as they aren’t totally ignorant) that when their daughter goes to spend the night at her boyfriend’s house, she’s having sex with her boyfriend, but they’ll ignore that part of it just as long as she’s back home in time to be able to say that she didn’t “sleep over”.
The same goes for the concept of “separated in the home,” which was so shocking for you: it goes back to the most important thing—to keep up appearances— so that way at the children’s school, at work, and at home you can say that “we are married, we’re a couple, we’re together.” Even if each of them lives a separate private life.
In short, go ahead and do it, but don’t tell anyone about it, don’t let anyone know. And then, if you do know, pretend not to know. (Do the pedophile priests remind you of anything?! Classic. The Church leads by example).

2) Don’t rock the boat.
The average Italian “gli pesa il culo,” meaning literally, has a heavy ass. Lazy. Tends to choose the easy way out. The separated under the same roof concept/situation would require talking to their children and explaining that mom and dad split up. What? Do that? And then deal with the emotional consequences of such a thing? No. Too strenuous. Better not to say anything.
Because then, after that, you’d have to try to get another apartment, not to mention then going through the laborious procedure of separation and divorce in Italy, which has a 3-year “cooling off” period before a couple can even file for divorce! Legal costs, time, hassle, strain.
Better to leave everything as it is: that’s easier, less effort.
Also because: why should I have to work to build a whole new serious relationship, when I can have one or multiple ones that is/are perhaps less meaningful and less rewarding, but at least easier?

3) Settle.
Apparently there is a saying that goes, “Francia o Spagna purché se magna”. Basically translates to “France or Spain, so long as we can eat.” That, to me, has helped me a lot to understand my country.
Since the time of the ancient Romans onwards, Italy has always been invaded by that, or this, so in the end the concept became simple: who cares who is in power, just as long as there is food for us to eat.
This relates directly to the one above. I don’t want to work hard, so I’ll just make do. It’s good enough.

4) Place the blame on someone else/don’t take responsibility.
It’s never anyone’s fault. And if it is someone’s fault, it surely isn’t mine.
Perfect example is the way that man who was separated in the same house responded to you after you told him you didn’t want to be with a married man. He answered your question about what a woman should do if she were to truly fall in love with him or care about him (above, “settle for less”) and then he followed up with: “In any case, it’s fine, I mean, we were off to a good start, but after this, it’s just fine the way you’ve decided.”
That is: YOU?RE the one who’s missing out here, YOU’RE the one who decided to end something that was “off to a good start,” NOT ME! A.k.a., if you feel like you’re missing out now, it’s all your own doing, it’s your own fault, it’s your own bad decision, you’re passing up a good thing but go for it, if that’s how you feel. (Also seems a bit like saving face, since he wasn’t the one to decide not to move forward, and that might be like being rejected.)

So there you have it folks. Food for thought, no? What are your experiences and reactions? I’m curious to know. Share in the comments. Also, do you have any great Italian bloggers to follow who write in English, either living abroad or in Italy? Include the links in the comments section!

As a parting gift, I leave you with a video you may have seen many times before, but it never gets old for me, about the Italians vs. the rest of Europe. Enjoy!


13 Responses to “Italians Explained From The Inside Out”

  1. unoscoiattoloindispensa October 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    That was brilliant, and quite the summary… Still, nothing beats the video! It’s been ages since I’ve seen it!
    But you and your friend are right, face is still such an important aspect of Italian culture, almost absurdly really… keeping face in the long term hurts so much more… One might argue that we haven’t moved much forward since “I Malavoglia” … but, it’s never our own fault, there so many other people to blame for things 😉 ! (I’d write that one as an appendix of lazy 🙂 )
    And me… well, after living in Scotland for four years, I’ll just blame the weather 🙂

  2. Pietro Branca (@georgatoss) October 6, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    I do agree 100% on 1 & 4.
    But if the 2 & 3 were true, Italy would have been the Nation of Mediocrity. But that’s not true. We do know that we (Italy) are amongst the best countries in the world. How could a nation of slackers be leading in a lot of fields? From aerospace engineering to shoemaking…

    I mean, your insider Italian is right when he writes that we don’t give a “sheep” about who’s in charge – Panem et circenses, is in our DNA, unfortunaltely.
    It is also true that before lifting a finger we must run a CBA (cost-benefit analisis) in our mind, everytime. This has nothing to do with the “I don’t want to work hard” which is a false stereotype that some of the Italian expats keep spreading: “I left Italy because I’m an hard worker, I’m not the typical Italian”…

    There is a bright article written by Alex Roe about the so called, Italian Laziness.
    If I may, here’s the link:

    Of course this is my opinion, and by my I mean – the opionion of an Italian Outsider, un Sardo. In Sardinia there are: the biggest refinery in Europe, one of the biggest coal mines in Europe, one of the biggest petrochemical plant in Europe (the biggest is Gela – Italy)… The point is, in Italay there are too many “biggest in EU” to be as lazy as someone says.

    Un saluto,

  3. StarryDreamer (@StarryDreamer01) October 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    I’m an Italian-Canadian. My dad is Italian (my mother is not). I’ve never lived in Italy but I know plenty of Italian-Canadians (1st, 2nd and even 3rd generation Italians) and I swear to you up and down everything that you mentioned in your post happens *here*. When I read your “separated but together” post I immediately knew exactly what he was talking about, because it happens here. Italians do it in North America. They may have lived in Italy 30+ years ago, but those weird traditions are engrained. The stuff you wrote about in this post– it happens here. My brothers girlfriend would sleep over and at 8am, she’d get up on a Sunday and go back to her house. Every week. I always wondered why, but your explanation makes complete sense. And yes, she’s a 1st generation Italian-Canadian. So ridiculous.

  4. Cristina October 7, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Managgia-that was quite the stereotypical over-generalization. i have been reading your blog for quite a while, and i realize you didn’t write it yourself, but was surprised to see this here.

  5. D October 7, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    I agree. While I know there are people who behave like this, I know a great number who do not. People separate. One of my student’s mothers just told me about the “problems” she and her husband are having. Maybe because I live in the north? lol. But there I go, myself, stereotyping. Nevertheless, I find married men who look for fun with straniere to be just buffoons looking for a quick lay with a “naive foreigner”. Most of my Italian guy friend will just up and break up with their girlfriends, no problem. No “lies” or “secrets”. boh.

  6. Un'americana a Roma October 8, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Yes I loved blaming the weather when I lived in Seattle, too. 😉

  7. Un'americana a Roma October 8, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Grazie Pietro! Lovely insights. I appreciate you taking the time to comment and for sharing the article. I like Alex Roe and his writing, I’ve read him before.

  8. Un'americana a Roma October 8, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    It’s interesting to hear that certain cultural norms and ideas continue even as the original culture is “diluted” through travel and marriage into other cultures!

  9. Un'americana a Roma October 8, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Cristina, thank you for your comment but please, don’t be surprised! It’s important for things like this to be posted as a basis to generate discussion, no? Otherwise how does one make sense of and also redefine stereotypical thoughts and viewpoints? Isn’t that what critical thinking is made of?

  10. Un'americana a Roma October 8, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    Nope can’t generalize in pretty much anything in life. Everyone is different and no “one” person represents an entire culture.

  11. Janet Thomas October 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Love the video!!! But I guess my husband is not such a typical Italian, in many respects. Of course he is obsessed with food though. And Grazie a Dio he is a good driver.

  12. Sarah May (@AntiquaTours) October 15, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Are you stereotyping foreign women as sluts?

  13. Gianduja February 10, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    I agree with the religious aspect of Italy that people sometimes forget (especially because nowadays it doesn’t seem so engrained, but it is). I believe that all this love for tradition and all this nationalism has to do with a long history of priests and churches trying to preserve the religious beliefs. It is crazy but I’ve known people who’s local cinema used to be owned by the church. But I’m afraid to say that the lazy estereotype is not true, at least not in the north. In the north people work HARD and have hardwork as a moral value. I know billions of people who are workaholics here, working extrahours just to keep up with quality (the face thing here seems more legit). And it doesn’t seems as something new, it seems as something most have been taught by their fathers when young.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: