It was martedì grasso, fat Tuesday, and there we sat, thinking of how good we would have to be over the next forty days. My aunt Donata had made fritelle, deep-fried fritters with pine nuts and candied fruit, that come from two weeks of the old people nagging the young people to save their orange peels. Donata makes them once a year at Carnevale. Then she invites her twenty nieces and nephews to crowd around her kitchen table and eat seventeen fritters each. Inevitably, when only one is left in the bowl, someone will say it: “Chi vuole quella della vergogna, who wants the shameful one?”
Now if you’re new to this country you might think that in this context, the word vergogna makes reference to the shame you feel over having gorged yourself on 18 fritters at an estimated fat content of twenty-six grams a piece. But you would be mistaken. Italians do not associate food and math and know nothing of calorie-counting. La vergogna doesn’t come from eating the fritter, it comes from having to reach for the fritter. It’s not committing the crime that’s the issue. It’s getting caught red-handed that really irks the Italian psyche. “Turn off the lights,” Donata joked, “So nobody will see who’s being greedy.” Note that the key word there, is not greed, it’s see. It doesn’t matter who eats fritella number eighteen, what counts, is who’s seen eating it. Now, this detail may seem like an insignificant detail, relevant only to the linguistically inclined. Trivial as it might appear, I’m convinced that this tiny nuance is a major clue to life in Italy. Learn the secrets of shame and many mysteries of l’italianità, Italianess, will suddenly be as clear as the sky on a summer’s day.
“There are two types of cultures in the world,” my University Professor Gustavo Foscarini told me one fateful day, “shame cultures and guilt cultures. Latin, Asian, and Arab societies are shame cultures. Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Scandinavian countries are guilt cultures.”
“I grew up in a monastery near Palermo,” he continued, “and I never wanted to kneel in church, ashamed as I was of the holes in my shoes.” He laughed, “Had I been brought up in a guilt-culture, I wouldn’t have been so ashamed of my poverty. I would have been much more concerned about who was to blame for it.”
Well, alas, unbeknownst to my dear Sicilian professor, I have been obsessing about his statement ever since. And after ten years of collecting evidence everywhere, I’ve decided that I can consider him perfectly right.
Upon observation, it’s safe to conclude, that in guilt culture, if you trip on a crack in the sidewalk, spill hot coffee on your lap, or slip on a freshly mopped floor, it all comes down to who’s to blame. That is to say, may the guilty party please rise, so that we may shoot him down and take all his money. It’s the lawsuit craze readily explained. I’ve discovered that guilt-culture citizens are prone to feel guilty for such things as spreading mayonnaise on their bread or taking a second helping of anything except celery. They torture themselves about trivial matters like not achieving their full potential, forgetting a birthday, or thinking about taking out the garbage but not actually doing it. Guilt is prolific in societies where closed doors and perfectionism runs rampant. Guilt, you might say, is a private phenomenon that a person suffers in the solitude of his own mind-labyrinth. As natural strangers to solitude, Italians are seldom slave to it.
The undisputable mistress of Italian society is, in fact, guilt’s fraternal twin, Vergogna. And perhaps, if guilt is a private obsession, then shame is a collective affectation. Ever-present queen of the piazza, shame is common in Italy and other cultures where family obligation and community pressure make saving face the primary goal of all citizens, both young and old. “Italians feel shame, because everyone is always looking. The bread lady, the neighbour, the neighbour’s dog, tutti. Even Donata who pulls her summer laundry in at midnight to see who’s coming home with whom and at what hour,” my cousin Mariana, teased our host, as she reached for la frittella della vergogna.
“Listen,” I told my crowding audience, “In the U.S., a student sued a doughnut shop for 20,000 dollars because he slipped on a newly mopped floor. He won, because the court ruled that there should have been signs saying “Watch your step. WET FLOOR.”
“What’s a doughnut?” my cousins wanted to know.
“Sort of like a frittella with a hole in the middle.”
There was hearty laughter everywhere.
“The fritter man cleaned his shop and had to pay twenty thousand dollars!” Marianna paused a moment, chewing thoughtfully, “Better shame than guilt,” she mused, “Shame is much cheaper.”