Watch how people share secrets and you’ll discover the things they are trying to hide. Learn how a country exchanges confidences and you’ll uncover the cornerstone of social rapport.
Italians may be known to the world as free-speaking, overly expressive individuals, but in reality, they are rather reserved when it comes to voicing their true feelings. You’ve got to be a bit of a detective if you want to survive in the bel paese.
Shy in all the ways Americans are not, Italians won’t tell their intimate dreams to the lady sitting next to them on the bus. Nor do they confess in code like the Brits. In England, people discuss the price of onions and what’s really being said depends on their tone of voice. In Italy, people scout out the din of unrelated chatter to disguise their tone and distract their listener. Secrets are easier to tell when they can barely be heard. Thus, in this country of narrow streets and wide piazzas, a brimming public place proves the ideal space for spilling your guts. Italians need to feel very safe to tell their secrets, and strangely enough, there is safety in numbers.
Catholic Italians, for example, practice la privacy in church, where the priest drones, the choir sings and all eyes are on someone else. At baptisms, communions, weddings and even funerals, family secrets find fertile ground for growing. The condensed version of break-ups, make-ups, blessings and misfortunes are swiftly passed, pan-faced, through the pews. Let’s just say that most of the confessing Italians do in chiesanever even reaches the priest. In my family, where sacraments dot the calendar with astounding frequency, church gossip is immensely popular. There are few other places in this country where one is so effectively protected from explosive responses.
On the day my sister married, I was crowded in the second row of San Pietro Martire beside my aunt and uncle. As the wedding march sounded, zia Rina turned to her husband, ‘I’m pregnant’, she said.
He barely blinked and the bride made her way down the aisle. ‘Couldn’t you have found another time to tell me’? he whispered.
‘No’, she said.
In spite of myself, I nodded in agreement. The child she was carrying was number eight. Theirs was a house of la Providenza not la privacy. Providence reigned sovereign and privacy had been exiled for more than a decade. When you live in the clutches of mass confusion, mass is the only safe place to exchange ideas.
Of course, these days, most of Italy’s families are small laic clans, who have had to find alternative spots for sowing secrets. Doorways often serve this purpose quite nicely. In the United States, people are trained to stand under thresholds in the event of an earthquake. For Italians, thresholds are the place to exchange confidences. The more earth-shattering the news, the closer they move to the door. In Italy, you can entertain your best friends from antipasto to caffè without exchanging so much as a dishful of personal disclosure. But be patient: authentic communication will arrive as soon as it’s time to leave. Italian good-byes are often lingering and packed with unexpected revelations. Among innumerable attempts at arrivederci, classified information suddenly seeps to the surface. Job offers no one should know about yet, nameless fears that have yet to be confirmed by reliable sources and happy but unofficial surprises are exchanged in rapid passing as if one were handing off the staff of an invisible relay.
If the confession is compromising, you’ve already got one foot out the door and escape is easy. If the secret is begging to ride the four winds, you’ll have it out in the piazza in no time. That’s why thresholds are the perfect temporary portal to la privacy. For Italians, it’s an almost uncomfortable dimension that is meant to end quickly. It’s a combination of ‘catch me if you can’ and ‘close your eyes and I’ll be gone’.
La privacy does exist in the Italian dictionary, where they say it means ‘intimacy’ or ‘reserve’. But, there is no real translation for the term, at least for how we apply it in English. For English speakers, privacy is a quasi-religious state, where aloneness becomes the key to all illuminating experience. More than riservatezza and less than intimità, privacy is the practical extension of ‘personal space’. That, in fact, is the clincher: Italy is a country that generates curiosity; around here, ‘personal space’ may as well be ‘outer-space’. Access to it is virtually nil. But Italians are generally good sports about limited landscape and linguistic short comings. They are willing to make do with the English word and fathom the piazza a private place, makeshift though it may be.
After their first year of marriage, my sister and her husband moved to a first floor flat overlooking the corner of a piazza. If you stand in their kitchen and try to mind your own business you can still hear every word spoken in the square below. ‘Aren’t you ever worried that your conversations can be heard out there as well’? I asked my brother-in-law one night.
Sebastiano shrugged. ‘Sound travels upwards faster than it goes downwards. That’s why you should only tell secrets on your way down the stairs. Never on your way up’.
Hmm. The Italian attention to detail will never cease to amaze me. How they manage to keep track of such things is an unsolved mystery. Otherwise, I rest my case. Italians may not have coined a word for privacy but they are certainly champions of private investigation. In this country, anything is worthy of observation. You never know what may someday serve as a worthy clue.