‘Un popolo timido’,

A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
August 4, 2005

If you really want to make an Italian squirm, politely listen to what he has to say. Sit with your hands in your lap and nod attentively after each of his emphatic affirmations. For an Italian, there is no worse scenario. Why? Because Italians are fundamentally shy. “Siamo un popolo timido, we are a timid people,” my friend Luciana told me one day. “We like to talk but don’t necessarily like being listened to.”

 

Certainly, Italians are not known to the world as a popolo timido, for all the talking they do in piazzas and at parties. And granted, “shy” might sound like a strange way to classify this extremely social race that is happiest among people, passeggiate, and parades. And yet, I’ve found Luciana to be right in what she says. But if neither of us can convince you, you’ll just have to wait for autumn and find out for yourself.

 

Humour me. On the fourth Thursday in November invite twelve of your closest Italian amici to share roasted turkey and red berry jam. After you’ve convinced them that it’s okay to alternate bites of fruit salad and mashed potatoes, try and get them to play what I call the Gratitude Game. Half-way through the meal, inform your guests that it’s a Thanksgiving tradition to go around the table and take turns saying what each guest is thankful for. If you are an English speaker by birth, I’m sure you know the method. One person talks and the rest passively listen, respectfully waiting until all the people seated around them in the circle have revealed their improvised pearls of wisdom. It’s that wonderfully English way of communication also known as the “What did you learn in school today?” style of discourse. The host, or the head of the family, initiates conversation and the guests, or children, as the case may be, obediently indulge in alternating bouts of speech and quiet.

 

“I’ll start,” you say to your Thanksgiving crew. “I am thankful for good friends, cornbread muffins, the Boboli Gardens and purple cyclamens.” Two to one, your proclamation of gratitude will be followed by embarrassed silence. This is simply because Italians have not been trained to express themselves when everyone is listening. God forbid, they might get caught saying something stupid. And for an Italian that is a fate worse than death. 

 

Admittedly, Italians have no problem boisterously expressing even the most controversial viewpoints in an impassioned effort to be heard over the twelve other equally adamant communicators populating your dinner table. And all is well when one is surrounded by simultaneous discourse. But give them a silent space in which to speak, and what you will find is a “popolo timido,” just like Luciana says. 

 

English speakers are different that way. Most will only speak if there is room. In an English-speaking environment, having to fight to be heard is considered, at best chaotic, and at worst uncivilised. For an Italian, the exact opposite is true. Simultaneous discourse is the dynamic key to all-illuminating expression, and not only that...it’s a safe place to hide.

 

The point is, if you want to have a successful dinner party with this popolo timido forget about circular games of gratitude. Give them a nice animated group of guests willing to talk to death about the superiority of Canadian apples. Let them glide in and out of the tap-dance of simultaneous discourse and reconcile yourself to being a wall-flower at the high school dance. Your timid guests will go away grateful. 

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