July 5, 2007

Living with ambiguity

Yesterday was the fourth of July, American Independence Day!

No fireworks, flags flying and barbecue in the backyard for us. The only vaguely American thing we did was a trip to the Auditorium for a concert by Dee Dee Bridgewater, called "Red Earth - A Malian Journey". The musicians -- all from Mali as she has recently discovered her African roots -- were fantastic and it was a great show.

The US Ambassador to Italy, Ronald G. Spogli, instead held a party at Villa Taverna for over 2,500 Italian and American dignitaries and friends. Today's news reports on his speech for the occasion. "Investment conditions for American business in the Italian economy are not favorable.... Without trying to deny this fact or identify the guilty parties, we should instead work together towards finding ways to improve the situation and put an end to this sad chapter of our history." One initiative he has enacted is an embassy sponsored program Partnership for Growth.

Why are American investors so cautious and reticent about investing in Italian companies? Below the surface of obvious obstacles connected to overwhelming bureaucracy, shifting politics, closed-minded "national interests" and undecipherable company law, there are lots of cross-cultural issues at work. The first (and foremost I believe) is a gap in tolerance of ambiguity / uncertainty. While that of Americans is very low, Italians comfortable live with and even thrive on ambiguity. In the end, the best of intentions fall between this crack. In a previous editorial the Ambassador states that, "Investments don't arrive where they are not well received. When the rules of the market change continuously without warning, the level of risk increases making it very difficult to program for the future." Sounds reasonable, to an American. I like that idea of programming for the future too, even in my daily life! And AT&T up and left town empty-handed citing "uncertain rules". They just couldn't see a straight line to the future.

Many years ago now, John (American), the Director of a small NGO in Rome, wanted to hire a part-time receptionist. A lawyer friend of mine stopped by the office one day to visit and John took advantage to ask, "Can I hire her off the books -- she will only be here for a few hours a day -- or not". Roberto gave what he thought was a clear and comprehensive picture of the situation by explaining that this would depend on John's comfort level with risk. Did he believe there was a high risk that this girl would eventually sue him for back taxes, or was he pretty sure she would not. In the first case, he should hire her on a regular contract and pay all the taxes and benefits, in the second, he could consider splitting the fallout with her and hiring her off the books. I looked back and forth between the two. Roberto seemed pleased at his job well-done, his clarity and precision regarding the situation. John's eyes glazed over and there was a minute of silence before he spoke, "So, can I hire her off the books, or not?"

a domani,

P.S. check out Shelley's post for pictures and a great story about her day at the Villa Taverna July 4th celebrations. Makes you crave a hamburger with the works!


Beth said...

More fodder for you might be how people dressed for the traditional 4th aat the residence of the Ambassador. Italian finery vs American casual. I was inivited but not alerted to the dress code and arrived in nice, casual attire, my husband is a linen shirt but no tie. When he saw how people were dressed, he refused to go inside.
We returned home and could hear DeeDee Bridgewater from our balcony!
So I felt connected to both your post and Shelley's...

Elizabeth said...

You can just never overdress in Italy and the term "casual" does not have the same meaning at all. You gotta love "la bella figura", ma "che fatica"!