Stepping over stereotypes

Miriam Hurley
January 12, 2006

Forgive me a stereotype: Italians like to talk about food. A lot. Running a distant second among favorite subjects is the differences between people from Italy’s various cities and regions. A likely conversation might seamlessly flow between these two stand-bys.


“What are you doing this weekend?”


“I’m going to Rome.”


“Ah, Roma. Bella. You have to have carciofi alla romana. I once had an artichoke there that was so soft and.. And the Romans are so down-to-earth.” .


The Romans get off easy compared to the natives of most other cities. Each group seems to fare worse than the next. Milanesi, Venetians, Lucchesi, Neapolitans, and, of course, Florentines, are variously stingy, workaholics, stuffy, on-the-make and closed-minded. As I was brought up that it’s not nice to insult whole cities all at once (in print, at least), I’ll let you mix and match yourselves.


I’m from Oregon, out on the roomy, young West Coast of the U.S. No one gets excited there about the character differences between Portlanders and Eugeners, a four-hour drive apart. In straining for our melting pot, we don’t like to talk about our differences. Here, however, I enjoy joining in the sport, nodding knowingly about how the Livornesi are such and the Bolognesi so, but not half as bad as the rest. I also take comfort when I fight with a friend to discover that the problem is not me, but the fact that he’s Sardinian, and everyone knows how the Sardinians are.


Rarely does anyone seem to get offended by this unabashed stereotyping. Faced with a lengthy list of their people’s character flaws, the response I’ve most often heard is, “Yeah, and?” This may be because it has the gentle ribbing of sibling rivalry to it. At the end of the day, Livornesi and Lucchesi religiously wear slippers in the house, never swim after lunch and aspirate their C’s.


As differences grow greater, matters get touchier. Northern vs. Southern Italy, for instance, is another popular game, but given the economic and historical rift, the flinging back and forth of terroni for the southerners and polentoni for the northerners, no matter how amusing to foreign ears, can get nasty.


If you’re a foreigner in Italy, you might distract the crowd by throwing in your own nationality and its baggage of stereotypes. If you’re, say, Dutch, this might amount to little more than clog-wearing and excessive height. In my case, sparking a healthy round of “Americans areand Italians are” is a near given.


Cultural differences are fascinating; the way culture influences everything from the creases on your face from pulling your culture’s habitual expressions to deeply held beliefs about the order of the universe and how one catches colds. This makes the game irresistible. But beware the slippery slopes.


Once I watched in embarrassment as a fellow American, still under the effect of culture shock, told a Livornese man at length exactly how Italians are (and the news wasn’t good), and what made her the expert was because she’d lived here for nine years. If he weren’t as affable as all Livornesi, he might have suggested his 35 years in Italy had her beat.


Of course, this is a two-way street. Fueled by lifetimes of images of America and Americans, Italians often ask me different versions of, “Are you guys really like that?” Sometimes the answer is easy, like when a friend asked if American homes were really as full of table lamps as seen on TV. Yes, they are. Other times, representing and explaining 250 million people and our mosaic culture makes me sweat. Though I take most pronouncements made about us in stride, there are times (“You’re pretty intelligent for an American!”) when the line is crossed.


The safest bet to avoid ugliness in the stereotype game is, of course, not to play at all. But, that’s no fun. Better to tread lightly when your generalizations get unflattering, and keep firmly in mind that you’re a guest in a foreign culture, which won’t always make sense to you, and that (as all Italians always say): “Il mondo è bello perchè è vario” (The world’s beauty is in its variety).

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