Non te la prendere: offending with affection

Non te la prendere: offending with affection

The language to get to grips with for long-term living in Italy.

Thu 21 Apr 2005 12:00 AM

Years of Italian living has taught me that one must be brave when talking to Italians, mostly because they will always tell you what they know.

If you have gained a kilo and someone notices, which is probable, they will tell you. If the hairdresser went overboard with your haircut, you won’t be left with any doubts as to what people really think about it. If you’ve been invited to dinner, and have a pimple on your nose be prepared to have your host tell you very frankly and in all politeness, “I see you have a pimple.” In fact, not only will he remind you that you have it but he’ll also tell you how to get rid of it. A lengthy debate will ensue among guests and everyone at the table will simultaneously suggest a different method to solve your unfortunate problema dermatologico. Some will recommend milk to soften your zit, others will suggest you spread toothpaste on it before sleeping, to dry it out. (I prefer the toothpaste method.)

Whether or not you find the cura you need, I’ve learned the hard way not to take personal offence when it comes to true and friendly comments and criticism. It’s best to listen to the friendly admonition, non te la prendere, one of my favorite Italian idiomatic expressions which can mean anything from “don’t take it personally,” “don’t take it seriously,” or “don’t get worked up over nothing.” 

Non te la prendere is a very useful series of words to the wise. In fact, if you plan on staying in Italy for a long time, it will prove to be an essential mantra of day-to-day survival. I’ll even go further, by suggesting that adopting the non te la prendere philosophy will help safeguard the health of all your intercultural personal relationships. This is true, in part, because what most English speakers would call “being insulting,” Italians often call “being sincero”. La sincerità is an art-form in Italy, and creative insults are said to add both humor and color to any relationship.

Take, for example, the uncanny Italian talent for taking your worst fault and making it into your nickname. If you’re short, they’ll call you Nano, “Dwarf.” If you’re fat, they’ll call you Ciccio, “Chubby.” If your head is big, they’ll call you Melon or Pumpkin or Big Head. If your big brother has a big head, they’ll call you Piccolo Big Head. If you have ears that stick out, they’ll call you Dumbo. Obviously, if your nose is long, you will be Pinocchio. You can also be called Pinocchio if your legs are short, because in the original Italian version of the story, some lies had long noses and some had short legs.

In my Venetian high school, I had friends who were sadly christened with all of the above names. Except Pinocchio, of course. It’s just too long. Our big-nosed friend was Pino, which rolls much more easily off the tongue.

As Italians see it, if you have short legs or a big head and everyone knows your head is big, and you know your head is big, then why pretend that it isn’t?

“We just feel it’s best to get things out in the open. We take our shortcomings and make them into good jokes,” my cousin Enrico told me recently. “In Italy, we offend for affection.”

Well, happily, I have received my share of affection in the last twelve years. I’ve been Gypsy (for walking around the kitchen in bare feet); Zanze (after a crazy lady who used to live in San Frediano); Lu Lu dei Fiori (for a cartoon character who nose turns up like mine); Senzasangue for having cold hands in both winter and summer; Fantasma Formaggino (no idea why); Pina, after another crazy lady; and, more recently, Pinguino (supposedly for the way I walk).

“But what if I don’t like being told that I walk like a penguin?” I asked Enrico, feeling very justified in my self-pity.

“Ahh, Pingui, non te la prendere,” he replied. “Penguins aren’t that bad, considering all the things we could tease you for.”

Needless to say, I felt much better after that.

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