March 8, 2008

Tell it like it is

I had a cross-cultural moment yesterday. Actually a reverse one. An American woman I had recently met at an event called specifically to inform me that I had done something the other day she didn't appreciate. She was very American about the whole thing by reflecting for 48 hours before calling, speaking very calmly and without a trace of emotion while being studiously assertive and precise about what she needed to express and finally telling me that she had called me for my own good so that I would be more aware in the future. I am sure that she felt good when she got off the phone -- she had gotten something off her chest in an appropriate, unemotional, rational way.

The problem is, I felt bad! I had been hastily judged by someone who doesn't know me or anything about me on the basis of her perspective and I wasn't put in a position to be able to think it through for 48 hours and respond appropriately!

Gotta love the Italian obsession with la Bella Figura, which goes hand in hand with other cultures' need to "give face". All that American individualism can foster an excessive need to express yourself in a very direct, clear and assertive way with little consideration of the person on the other side. Other cultures allow for getting the point across through context, while gracefully allowing for giving and receiving "face".

Italians will certainly tell you like it is, in your face, even in a very animated and very emotional way, at exactly the moment that it happens. You respond, they respond....and then it is over, poof, and you can go get an espresso together. Otherwise they will do whatever it takes to enhance your role in making the world a beautiful and elegant place, worthy of their effort at upholding belief in the Bella Figura.

I'll go lick my wounds and be back...
a domani,
E

4 comments:

Lisa said...

"Italians will certainly tell you like it is, in your face, even in a very animated and very emotional way, at exactly the moment that it happens. You respond, they respond....and then it is over, poof, and you can go get an espresso together. Otherwise they will do whatever it takes to enhance your role in making the world a beautiful and elegant place, worthy of their effort at upholding belief in the Bella Figura."

Hum, I'm not so sure about this... Maybe my generation is different, or maybe the Italians I frequent are different. But I've been in awkward passive-aggressive situations when the other person (Italian) felt hurt but didn't have the maturity or insight to know how to express it, so they just acted cold, odd, and brusque.
I really think the scenario you described cannot be attributed to Italian vs. American- it's just about different personalities. I'm sure there are plenty of Italians who would do what the American woman did and plenty of Americans who wouldn't...

And in my opinion "fare bella/brutta figura"isn't all you're hyping it up to be, I fid it to be the cause of problems rather than an elegant solution.

Jennifer said...

Although I have never had an Italian call me up 48 hours after an exchange to rebuke me for something I may have said, to a certain extent, I'd have to agree with Lisa. Italians (and especially Italian women) do, at times, harbor resentment and not say a word to you, although they might mention the fact that you conducted yourself poorly, in their opinion, so that it eventually comes back to you. This has happened to me with Italian women and one Englishwoman in the past. In the case of the Italians, the friendship was salvaged. In the case of the Englishwoman, it was not.

I cannot even imagine an Italian calling me to get something off her chest, with the thinly veiled lie that she was calling "for my own good." The nerve! American women do tend to that and I can hardly stand it.

My mother has the most appropriate approach in these situations, I think. Whenever anyone says or does something she doesn't appreciate, she immediately says: "Why did you say that?" or "What did you do that?" And sometimes adds: "That hurt my feelings." The isssue is almost always immediately resolved and it never comes up again. I don't think that's cultural. It's just her personal brand of diplomacy.

Anonymous said...

Ouch! Dear Elizabeth, I have had the same thing happen several times too often to me, and alas have also done the same myself I am ashamed to admit, until finally deciding that there is truly something very fishy in all this non-sense about telling it like it is, to another, for her good, etc. Another's good? Then why do we not feel any of this good, after such a conversation?

Most people I know who think they are being honest when telling you what they think YOU HAVE DONE WRONG, naturally for your good, rarely theirs, are quite often simply being mean, and not so subtly. There are ways to communcate, dialogue, tell the truth, truly unto the good of both/all parties. And I assure you, after such a communication you feel the good, even if the conversation has had to be painful for whatever reasons.

If someone were to call me 48 hours later, after the fact, to speak to me about a past sin of mine, I would kindly say: Honey, I have already confessed (and been forgiven); now you do the same, for your good.

a kind sister

maris said...

I might have to agree with Lisa. Here in Veneto I often encounter situations where people think their arguments through very well and tune down whatever emotions they might have about a particular mistake of someone else's. I'm trying to learn that too, though it's not easy. In Estonia things are usually cleared up in quite a straightforward fashion. Here I find it difficult to tune criticism to the right degree, in order to make sure that the message arrives, but at the same time not hurt anyone's feelings. The most difficult thing is to communicate that I don't have a big personal problem and whatever I have to say will only have to do with the practical issue at hand. My Italians, however, seem to take my comment as something I've been harbouring for a while and am not able to keep in any longer, so obviously they get offended and it's all a big mess. The conclusion I can draw from this is that they themselves take their time before coming out with what they have to say. This is altogether quite frustrating, as it means that I never know if they have something to say or not. It would be great to have the "poof!-over!" effect instead.

(This comment is long because I'm fresh our of an encounter like this from half an hour ago.)