July 9, 2007

Learning ambiguity

If Italians live comfortably with, and even thrive on ambiguity, how do they learn to do so? We seemed to have missed this lesson as we grew up.

My older son passed his maturità exam up in Trento and has been sharing notes with his buddies from ginnasio in Rome who had a little exam adventure. Since the last maturità reforms, there has been an "unwritten rule" (his term) that the subject chosen for the second day of the three day written section of the exam is then not included on the third day short answer test. So since Latin was chosen for the liceo classico portion of the exam (a translation exercise), Greek, but not Latin, would be on the short answer test. He continued, "It is not a written rule, but the professors generally make the students understand that this will be the case." Instead, to their surprise, the students found questions on Latin grammar in addition to Greek and in the place of history. It seems that the history professor had an emergency and couldn't participate in the exam, so the Latin professor took her place.

The students can't complain because the practice was only an "unwritten rule" or more precisely, insider information that could be withheld at any time. In theory, the professors could choose any five subjects out the ten, in practice, they had an ongoing "arrangement" with the students. In the process, this group had an important lesson in how to live with ambiguity and its practical consequences.

So when they grow up they will do a much better job than I ever will at figuring out the unwritten parking rules at the auditorium. There is a pay parking lot (1.5 euros/hour during the evening) that stays empty until all the outside street parking (none of which is marked as "regular" places) is filled up -- on curbs, in the center triangle of a road fork, along curves etc. "Don't those cars get ticketed" I naively asked the men at the parking lot, pointing at the colorful tangle in the middle of the road. They shrugged and looked at each other, "Never seen a car get a ticket in the evening, but then again, the traffic police could come by and give out fines if they choose to do so."

So, I wanted to ask, where should I park? But I didn't, because I knew that the answer had to do with my risk tolerance level, and, having failed yet another "tolerance of ambiguity" test, I parked in the lot.

a domani,

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