A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
April 19, 2007

Nell'amicizia, Italians do not necessarily aim for understanding. The simply see, know and feel. And while this type of soul-searching needs no consent, real trust might not apear for years.

People phone the pressroom with various questions. Some depend on the season. In autumn, they call wondering where to buy Halloween costumes and where to find canned pumpkin for pies. In winter, they ask how to get flu vaccinations and where to go to celebrate Christmas mass. Up until last week, our prize-winning call came from an Italian man who rang The Florentine to get the metric equivalent of inches and ounces. But his first-place rank in the ‘Top 10 telefonate of all time’ was recently lost to a woman named Sandra who phoned to ask a favor. She was leading a round-table discussion on friendship in Italy and wanted to know if I’d ever written an article about amicizia.

‘Well, not specifically. But, I can write one this week, if you want’, I offered, relieved to have an assignment.


It didn’t take long to discover, however, that amicizia is not as friendly a word as it sounds. Writing about friendship is like standing in a field, hoping a butterfly will land on your hand. And if by chance it actually does, it’s a fragile creature whose wings should not be tampered with. Nonetheless—when Elleci asked what word he’d be drawing this week, I answered, ‘L’amicizia. A lady asked me to write about it.’


He usually never argues about the expressions I choose, but apparently my answer surprised him, ‘That’s way too broad a topic’! he protested.


‘Maybe—but the real problem is that it’s made me realize how few friends I have’.


‘What are you talking about? You’re surrounded by people who love you’.


‘Yes’, I nodded, ‘but Italians are not very good at the spill-your-guts brand of friendship we have in the United States’.


‘Maybe not’, he admitted. ‘It takes a long time for us to trust someone. Americans confide in perfect strangers at dinner parties. I know, because more than once, I’ve been the stranger’.


I smiled. It’s true that in English-speaking cultures, true friendship can happen quickly and strongly depends on one’s ability to lend a willing ear. Self-disclosure is the starting point. To the Anglo mind, there is nothing nicer than finding someone who will patiently sit through your version of the story. ‘To listen’, ‘to empathize’ and ‘to understand’ are the verbs that support any good relationship. They’re the beams with which you build the bridge. Once you’ve made a crossing point, mutual trust marks the safest spot and you’re given permission to pass. Collaborative effort is expected and friends always meet half way.


Italians, on the other hand, pursue a different path towards l’amicizia. Most depend on their eyes—not their ears—when it comes to getting to know someone. Why? Because in Italy, words often serve as a place to hide. The Italian language is perfect for poetry and politics, but in this country, the truth is more likely found in what’s left unsaid. Italians much prefer keen observation to voluntary self disclosure. By following the height of a gesture and the depth of a gaze, they successfully guess which ships find harbour in the port of your heart. Nell’amicizia, Italians do not necessarily aim for understanding. They simply see, know and feel. And while this type of soul-searching needs no consent, real trust might not appear for years.


Needless to say, these two different styles of friendship spring from the cultures that created them. Eye-based amicizia, for example can easily flourish in a country where the sheer nearness of people fosters frequent scrutiny. It’s also true that in Italy, nation-wide mobility is rare and childhood friends often have the chance to grow old together. Trust can afford to take its time. And since long-time friends serve as supporting actors in your personal theatre, they’ve got no need to listen to a condensed version of your life story.


‘In the U.S. you change cities like we change seasons’, Elleci told me, ‘It’s logical that people can’t be stingy with trust.


There’s no time to lose’.


‘Yeah’, I smiled, ‘I’d often find myself baring my soul to my counter-mates at the diner and would end up sobbing into my coffee’.


Elleci was unsure as whether or not to believe me. ‘Here’, he said, passing me the last fried artichoke.


‘Thank you’, I smiled. ‘They’re my favourite’.


‘I know. I’m trying to keep you happy. I don’t want you crying in your coffee later’.


‘Italian cups are too small for tearful confessions’.


‘Well, thank God for that’, he grinned.


Yes. And thank God for friendship in any country.

more articles