April 27, 2007

Being particular

I received such interesting comments on this and this entry that I am inspired to get back to the group vs. the individual cultural orientation again to share some other points of view.

Roberto Ruffino, the Director of Intercultura (the Italian counterpart of AFS) for over 30 years and expert in American-Italian cross-cultural differences, once made an observation that has stuck with me. In a presentation on Italian culture for a SIETAR conference, he noted that while many people consider Italians to be individualistic in their behavior, they are actually quite conformist and group oriented. But within this cultural orientation and the control of family and tradition, they are allowed lots of room to cultivate personal expression, to be “particolare” and express individuality as long as it does not interfere with group obligations. Often Italians demonstrate very strong personalities publicly, express distinctive and even outlandish personal beliefs and allow themselves the privilege of highly idiosyncratic behavior while, oddly (to us), accepting obligations in well-defined spheres of their lives (all those "non si fa" and unwritten social rules). What we see as elaborate and extravagant ways (Vittorio Sgarbi on TV talk shows and PM Ida Boccassini’s hairstyles and jewellery come to mind) are not expressions of individualism but individuality – l’essere particolare.

In the early pages of Tobias Jones’ book, The Dark Heart of Italy, he notes, “Rather than excitingly chaotic, Italians began to appear incredibly conservative and obedient… systemized and rigidly hierarchical.”

In the chapter on The Group and the Individual of the book, Riding the Waves of Culture, Trompenaars/Hampden.Turner give this business example. “If the Americans are criticised there is a good chance that Bill will put an elbow into Pete, while asking whose rotten idea it was, while the Italians will walk out as having suffered a group insult, regardless of the fact that it was Giorgio who did it.” The group as a unit of survival above that of the individuals.

My American friend,Pat, a long-term expat in Rome, didn’t leave a comment, but sent me an email with this anecdote: “I have had many experiences with Italian groups and the group mentality, some amusing and others exasperating. One was in a Liceo Scientifico. I was the afternoon English conversation teacher, when the kids were tired and even more highly strung than usual. Several of the Italian professors were concerned; they knew their students quite well and told me to just call out if any student got out of hand. I instantly and self-assuredly replied: "I'll just send such a student out the room!"

They all looked at me, laughed, and then said: And all the rest will follow him/her out! One for all and all for one, the group wins out again.

A domani,

April 26, 2007

April 25

Yesterday was a holiday, but you may be asking yourself, “why”?

A non-Catholic holiday is a rarity, and April 25 is one of three -- festive in some ways and full of tension in others. It’s about “liberation” and “resistance” -- a day to celebrate the birthday of Italian democracy and its rediscovered national independence. So why is it also full of tension? Italy is an old world yet young county and April 25th underlines the second. Although it achieved unification in 1860 (adding Rome in 1870), April 25, 1945 marks the beginning of Italy as a truly independent, democratic state, only 62 ago, and the wounds that were inflicted to reach this milestone are still not completely closed, opening annually to ooze for the occasion.

The Resistance (i partigiani) fought against the Fascist state (la Repubblica di Salò after September 8, 1943) and finally won out as Italy finished off WWII, with the support of the allies, on the “right” side. The political left and right come to arms on this day. The extreme left doesn’t like how the left in general has moved center stage. The right has its skeletons in the closet that it has locked away as it also moves center stage. But on this day, everyone is forced to remember and assess and judge and this can lead to demonstrations in piazza and lots of noise. It is never a tranquil day with picnics in the park.

President Napolitano spent the holiday on the island of Cefalonia in the Ionian Sea with his Greek counterpart. 9,600 out of 12,000 Italian soldiers were killed by Nazi forces on this idyllic island in the Fall of 1943. The two forces had only the day before been on the same side, but the tide turned, Italy joined the Allies and the Nazis attacked their new enemy. We visited this island a few summers ago and you still get a very real sense of this history and the blood shed on these pristine shores.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi (of the political left) back in Rome acknowledged that Italy “is on the road to political reconciliation, even if we still need more time.”

The Mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti (of the political right), got a round of applause as she finished her intervention in the Piazza Duomo, “Long live free Milan, long live the Republic, long live Italy and…… long live the Resistance.” Maybe the time for political reconciliation is not so far off.

A domani,

April 24, 2007

Classroom dynamics

A comment left anonymously on this entry:

"that's ridiculous... maybe that's why Italians don't feel they can be held accountable for their actions. I think that's a very ineffective way to "discipline" kids. they'll never learn about being responsible for their actions within a group/class/community!"

I recently received an email from my son’s class representative (mother) stating:
“I professori, con l’eccezione della prof.ssa R. e della supplente di Italiano, continuano a lamentarsi del comportamento della classe che, in generale, rende difficoltose e faticose le lezioni, comportamento che evidenzia un certo disinteresse nei confronti delle materie insegnate nonché una scarsa propensione allo studio. L’insegnante di scienze ha riferito un certo miglioramento. Manca uno studio sistematico di tutte le discipline e in genere lo studio è superficiale."

Basically that “the class” was being disruptive and not studying enough etc.. The math teacher is one of those on the rampage, but when I saw him the other day, he seemed quite surprised that I might think “the class” behavior might pertain my son – “of course not”, he exclaimed. Actually I hadn’t imagined so, but I was just checking, since “the class” had been indicted.

Back to the comment. In school, Italians develop a different way to be held accountable for their actions – not the Anglo-American way that stresses the individual – but a much more subtle “group” way, peer pressure. The WHOLE class gets indicted, and therefore the same group of 25 odd students is forced into finding its own equilibrium during long, endless hours in the same classroom for years on end (five hours a day x 6 days a week x 37 weeks a year x five years). They have to figure it out, work it out, find a balance and get on with it, and they often do --- a true lesson in group dynamics, compromise, consensus building, the power of peers. Discipline often comes from within the group instead of from above. Is that less effective in the long run? Boh. They certainly are accountable to their group.

Until very recently, youth drinking wasn’t an Italian problem. We all know how effective “rules” are in this area. Instead, the concept of the bella figura and the fact that you had to face your peers the day after (and after and after and after) made for a much more effective deterrent to getting wasted and making a fool of yourself.

To each culture, its approach to discipline.

A domani,

April 21, 2007

The Families Who Made Rome

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Anthony Majanlahti’s presentation of his book, The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide, in the Throne Room of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj just behind Piazza Venezia sponsored by the Canadian Women’s Association of Rome, the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See and kindly hosted by the Doria Pamphilj family. He was witty and told lots of interesting stories, about the noble and papal families who built Rome between the 13th to the 18th century, both literally through what they built and socially through why they chose to build what they did and how.

The Families Who Made Rome – a book with a theme that often pops up in my blog as I look at Italian culture today – families and their particular nature in Italy. The book delves back eight centuries to look at how these families were and follows them up to the 18th century.

There was violence – like today, they regularly commit murder among themselves, there was greed and power, sometimes lots of power when the family had a pope to call its own, and an amazing dose of self-esteem or arrogance that drove their lives and family dynasties. They enjoyed a good show and making a spectacle -- one prince even blew up a few building instead of quietly tearing them down to make space for a piazza by his palazzo, he simply liked the idea of homemade fireworks lighting up the sky, a good show indeed, until the debris descended. They formed family style corporations and, as one line died out, intermarried to ensure future generations. Family as a business – not much has changed on this side as well.

They were concerned with how they presented themselves and used the family “griffe” to impose their personal style on the city through palazzi, churches, fountains and gardens. They even lived in clusters, all the family in one block of palazzo or quite close by – staking out their corner of the city.

The book is a good read, a combination of history and a guide book that leads you around the city by family, what they built and why, instead of by street names. It also provides insight into some characteristics of today’s Italians – how they came to be the way they are, the families that formed and passed on through generations, an Italian style of thinking, being and doing.

A domani,

April 19, 2007

Uncertain rules

The Americans came, looked about, and then stooped down to sniff. At base of the lovely and enchanting flowers, they smelled something dark and dank, obscure, indefinite – unsure of what it was, they moved on in search of greener fields. In other words, AT&T put forth an offer to acquire a controlling share of Telecom Italia, only to suddenly pull out, citing incertezza sulle regole (uncertain rules) as the reason -- or at least this is what the papers say.

In Italy the rules are never clear and straightforward and foreign investors don’t have the time and/or patience to figure them out. There are two ways to look at this complex area in terms of cross-cultural tools. One is by examining communication styles – our low context one in contrast to Italian high context style. The other is where the cultural value of rules lies along a spectrum that runs from their universal application to an orientation towards varying rules according to particular situations.

Context: (click here for a presentation of context in communication). In Italy rules often operate differently in different contexts and these subtle distinctions are really only accessible to Italians. In the end, only an Italian can understand how a rule can or should be interpreted in any given situation, depending on its context – extremely frustrating for foreigners!

Rules: (click here for a presentation of rules and their particular or universal application.) As one newspaper noted, it was not only the “uncertain rules” themselves that drove the Americans away, but the uncertain terrain on which new rules might be formed, undefined environmental “obstacles” coming from the government currently in power that could invent new rules to separate TLC services from their management. Transparency was also an issue as AT&T delved deeper into Telecom’s papers, or tried to. The problem being that these new rules only came about after the American offer, not before, as a way to lay a level playing ground for all – very uncertain terrain indeed that unsteadies the foreign investor and topples the best of plans.

A domani,

April 18, 2007

Middle school days

Clare and Jean had to rush off from our lunch for a school meeting. Their children are in a terza media class that is in trouble for disruptive behavior. Actually only a couple of children in the class are making the trouble (and everyone knows who they are), but, in any case, the teacher called in all of the parents to discuss the bad behaviour of the class as a whole.

The remaining six members of our lunch group were confused. We were meeting for a good-bye lunch to honor a friend who is returning to Canada after eight years in Rome. Together we cover a few continents: a South African, an American, an Italian / American who grew up in Rome, a British / American married to an Italian, a Belgian married to a French-Canadian, a Russian naturalized American, the honoured guest, another French-Canadian and me. All but three of us have or have had children in the international or French schools and they were confused. “Why doesn’t the teacher just call in the parents of the children who are making the trouble?” asked the practical American. The three of us exchanged those knowing looks, "doesn’t work that way,” Clare cut short – this is her third child going through the Italian school system and she knows the ropes. The teacher never singles out the individual children who are making trouble. Instead the parents of all the children must account for the behaviour of the class as a whole.

As is often the case, it comes down to the relative placement of the individual and the group on a value scale. In Italy, over and over again, the group takes the high ground. The school sezione or class is the place where this value is both learned and exercised. Teachers do not single out students because the class is a unit onto itself – like the family, a basic unit of survival that is higher on the value scale than the individuals of whom it is made. The group must survive in order for the individuals within it to do so too, not the other way around (our way). So it is the group, the class as a unified whole with the parents, that must deal with its disturbing internal elements in a way that allows for the survival of the group. The dynamics of the classroom are so different from anything we have experienced that they are very difficult to grasp. The process of group formation is slow and complex and effective so that by the end of high school, the web of collective experience has been spun for life.

The Italian / American nodded in understanding. Although she attended an international high school, American university and British graduate school, on return to Rome, she easily slipped back into the web of her Roman scuola media friends, of which she was and will always be a part.

A domani,
E (that's me in the brown shirt)

April 17, 2007

The Murder Divide

Italians have their own home-grown types of violence and murder – from the family-style Sicilian mafia to the ideological madness of the Red Brigades. They also have a certain propensity to kill family members when life overwhelms, generally starting with the mother-in-law before moving on to wife, children, brothers and sisters -- a recent shooting even expanded to include the next door neighbors. But the random shooting of strangers in a public place (a school, mall, office, fast food restaurant) is a foreign concept that is generally associated with the US.

I am sure that over the next few days I will be asked many times why these terrible mass shootings take place on American soil. I certainly don’t have any answers, but perhaps I can come up with a few questions. Could it have to do with the sense of alienation that comes hand in hand with a culture based on the individual? If the individual is the basic unit of survival and self-reliance and independence are core values, what happens when you feel backed up against the wall and alone, who do you turn to, where do you go? It is you against the world, as an individual, alone. Instead, if the family is the basic unit of survival, and interdependence and mutual reliance are core values, do you take your family along with you, killing them, then yourself because in any case, they can't survive without you? To each culture, its murder madness.

A domani,

As I was writing, a sudden (and violent) afternoon storm came through, leaving this gift to share.

April 6, 2007

While I'm away....

While I’m away….

1. Wander through the labels that I have finally set up (along with the new look).

If you are struggling with a cross-cultural moment yourself, try the label “cross-cultural tools”, starting from the bottom up. At least you will find a few good questions, sorry no answers.

If you are hungry, try looking under “food”, especially my birthday lunch!

If you are confused about Italian ways, visit "individualism" for a few insights.

If you are feeling dumpy compared to those glamorous Italians, see "bella figura".

If you get tired of me, try Shelley. She has left a selection of entries from over 20 bloggers while she is away on her honeymoon or try one of my links to the right.

2. Tell me about one of your cross-cultural moments or culture shock experiences. Have you ever had that twitch, punch in the gut, squirmy, queasy, lightheaded feeling when you have found yourself outside of your cultural comfort zone? I’d love to hear about it. You can find my email by clicking on the “view my complete profile” to the right.

3. Read one of the books on the side (you can find the cross-cultural ones on the Intercultural Press site – see link). I am taking with me, “The Families that Made Rome”, by the Canadian author and historian, Anthony Majanlahti. Sure to be a entry on this one after I hear his book presentation coming up in the Throne Room of the Palazzo Pamphilj in Rome – sorry, invitation only. Anyway, everyone who has read it, loves it because he makes the architectural history of Rome between the 13th and 17th century accessible, human and interesting. Will let you know.

4. Forget about calcio for just a few days and follow the Italian national youth volleyball team at the European championship in Vienna from April 11-16. The top five national teams will go to the World Cup in Mexico this summer. Cheer on the tri-colore, including our son, to victory!

5. Have a walk on a sunny day with someone special and enjoy the holidays with family and friends.

Buona Pasqua.
Alla prossima,

Did you notice my oh so American “to do” list……
photo from the window of my local pasticceria before Easter.

April 5, 2007

Abbacchio al forno

I was just thinking about last Easter.

On Good Friday, I received a desperate phone call from my husband, “Come quick, a client delivered a gift that I can’t bring home on the motorino.” Before I could respond, he had hung up.

A little peeved at this trip to the office in late morning traffic, I grumbled on over only to find a lamb hanging over the small office refrigerator by the secretary’s desk. From head to tail it came up to my chest and now I understood the urgency and the motorino issue.

Off I rushed, with the item wrapped in a few bags on my outstretched arms like a corpse in the night, and into the arms of Stefano, my local macellaio before he closed shop at 1:30. He clucked at my good fortune and the fine work of art in my arms and took special care in cutting it up into manageable pieces, innards aside and all nicely wrapped in that special Italian meat-wrapping paper.

Well, we certainly had a proper Italian Easter family lunch on the terrace, complete with abbacchio al forno con patate. No mint jelly, though (we don't want to shock the natives).

I can see all you Americans out there grimacing at the thought of an entire, skinned animal being carried around, but guess what, it is the same thing that you find all nicely packaged in plastic at the supermarket. Funny though that while Americans are so far removed from "real" food in its primary state, there are so many more American vegetarians and vegans etc than Italian ones. Italians happily eat it all, in moderation, even with the whole works on the plate – fish heads and bones, lamb innards and whatever else, as long as it is fresh and well prepared.

All I can say, is that we all thoroughly enjoyed the best abbacchio ever – for sure it was fresh!

A domani,

The picture is from today. Stefano remembers my abbacchio from last year, but posed for me with a smaller version that was handy in the backroom.

April 4, 2007

The ambiguity game

I am having a “tolerance of ambiguity” moment today. The roots of this cultural imperative are long and strong and an integral part of Italian and Catholic culture-- although I do try to understand, some days just bring on moments.

How is it that a guy (Cesare Previti in this case) can receive a final sentence of six years for corruption charges, confirmed by the highest court (for the Imi-Sir case) and then not only be granted three years grace and the other three doing social services, but also continue to be a Senator in Parliament. Absurd and unthinkable, to us, but somehow makes sense within the context of Italian culture’s high tolerance of ambiguity. It is not an individual case, there are approximately twenty parliamentarians (between the Senate, House and European Parliament) in more or less the same situation, granted some with convictions that are more serious than others, but in any case, not exactly the kind of people you want representing you in government -- or maybe some are, but where do you draw the line between a ten day sentence for a building violation and the millions of euros paid off to officials to rig a merger or secure a contract?

Pazienza. Rules are made, and then enforced by taking into account the particular situation, in this case, political ties. The old bulldog, Antonio di Pietro, from Tangentopoli days, is heading up a proposal that would block candidates from Parliament once they had received a final sentence. Boh – yet another law?

Back at school, they all learned to walk the fine line between out and out cheating (punishable) and “helping each other out” (openly overlooked or simply ignored by the teacher). By the time they turned 18, they had learned the ambiguity game. We instead, are pretty naïve, believing that rules are rules and should be applied universally in the same way.


A domani,

April 3, 2007

The family business

Yesterday’s La Repubblica newspaper had its usual Monday Business and Finance supplement, with its usual story about a woman in carriera (a successful businesswoman) on the front page. I think I have heard it before. Yawn. She is smart (only female graduating member of her class in engineering), savvy (papa sent her abroad to study and learn languages), young (31), very driven, determined and capable.

She went to work for the family business just out of university, covering many areas before taking over the company’s marketing, research and development. She does not feel herself to be “the daughter of” and has no complexes of any sort. She never felt the need to rebel, her father had sent her abroad to study and had always trusted her, in fact she had asked him if she could enter into the family firm, not the other way around. She learned the business from the bottom up while always being given every opportunity to do so. In fact, it was the Managing Director who took her out of internal accounting and gave her the task of “reinventing our marketing” although she had no experience or studies in the field. “I started from zero, went to the library and studied.”

Whew. She had certainly been groomed and was up to the challenge. Being figlia di is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. A question of faith and trust and living up to expectations. We Americans have a problem with this -- the self-made man, pulling yourself up from nowhere by your bootstraps are the stuff of Americans. Slipping into the family business is the coward's route that does not show “independence” and “self-reliance.” But, at the same time, she is good, really good and really dedicated. She states, “My only objective is the good of the company.” Now where would you find that sentiment outside of the family?

A domani,

April 1, 2007

Sunday shopping

Sunday. Slept late. Morning run in Villa Pamphili. Nice, leisurely family lunch on the terrace. Put in a load of wash – detergent finished. “Oh well, I can do that tomorrow, or….shall I try the new supermarket?”

I brought my camera along for the short walk.

The bar was closed.

The alimentari / fruit and vegetable store was closed.

The tabacchi, shoe repair and pharmacy were closed.

But, the new GS was OPEN. Actually at first glance it looked closed as there were no clerks at the checkout counters and no one inside. But the doors opened and behind the cereal I met one man and by the bread section one woman. Just as I approached the checkout counter, a clerk popped out from a nearby aisle. I asked, “are there usually more people here on a Sunday?” She explained that the mornings are busy but the afternoon opening was an “experiment”. From the look of things, not a very successful one.

From my blog meanderings and work with study-abroad students, it seems that many Americans believe being able buy anything at any time of the day or week to be one of those inalienable rights along with life and liberty. Or, in any case, 24/7 store openings is high on the almost all lists of “what I miss from the U.S.” To others, Italians in this case, Americans in desperate need of “24/7” while abroad look oddly like drug addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms -- "Just relax, it's OK, don't worry, you can buy it later," they assure.

Judging from today’s trip to the GS, Italians still manage quite nicely without a visit to the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon. It would be out of sync with their orderly and pre-set daily/weekly/monthly/yearly rhythms. Going to the store and Sunday afternoon do not go together – like oil and water. Sunday mixes nicely instead with family and friends, a movie and a pizza, a stroll up and down the main street, a walk in the park, or a visit to the pasticceria -- now that is a shop that is packed on a Sunday afternoon!

I started up the washing machine, but really, it could have waited until tomorrow.

A domani,