Meno male
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Meno male

Reflection on the frequently used expression.

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Thu 27 Jul 2006 12:00 AM

Italians are not too good at worrying about the future, but they do enjoy expressing relief when the future turns out much better than planned. In Italy, that means most of the time. The phrase meno male, literally translated as ‘less bad’ is Italy’s most common verbal sigh of relief. Essentially, meno male is ‘thank goodness’ with an Italian twist. The two expressions can be used interchangeably, but each phrase denotes an entirely opposite perspective.

Generally speaking, English-speakers nurture a soft spot for straightforward things like goodness. ‘Thank goodness’ works well because English speakers are prone to believe that good will eventually prevail so the least we can do is give credit where credit is due. If things go according to schedule or the day unfolds even better than planned, then goodness gets all the gratitude. After all, what—besides goodness—could be responsible for making the day obey one’s vision of how the world should work? Italians, on the other hand, know nothing of such sure-faced optimism and consider themselves fortunate when the ‘less’ fearsome option is somehow mercifully bestowed upon them. But they never thank goodness. In fact, they’ll likely react to a lucky turn of events by scoffing at all that could have gone wrong rather than singing the praises of what went right. Arguably, this is because Italians have little experience with having the cards fall easily into place. Life in Italy simply holds too many variables. You may have a game-plan, but you probably won’t get to use it. Besides, for the Italian psyche, the forces of good have better things to do than worry about upholding the validity of one’s planned desires. But Italians prefer personal drama to personal control and are quite content when the world presents them with a platter of ‘less bad’ scenarios.

Often confused with ‘it could have been worse’ meno male differs from that phrase by virtue of its use rather than its content. In English, we say ‘it could have been worse’ when things really could have been worse. Meno male, on the other hand, means that things have turned out quite beautifully. The linear nature of our language makes English speakers naturally drawn to orienteering. In other words, we like to go through life knowing where North is. I often catch my study-abroad students charting out their days with quasi religious fervour, anxious to accomplish the infinite number of items crammed onto their three-month-long Florentine to-do list. Those lists impress me to no end. After fourteen years in Italy, the newly arrived drive to ‘get things done’ fills me with an almost spiritual sense of awe. My wonder turns to worry quite quickly though. For many of those students, life seems just one interminable to-do. The houses they’ll buy and the children they’ll bear are all neatly squeezed into age appropriate squares in their minds. Life is an agenda to fill, and they plan their personal events with what Italians would consider shocking certainty. And when things turn out just so, they’ll thank ‘goodness’ for being so faithful a friend. Italians are different that way. It’s not that they don’t like the idea of future certainties; on the contrary, they are entirely enamoured by them. For an Italian, a safe job, nice furniture and a windowsill from which to watch the geraniums grow is just a few steps short of paradise. But Italian young people tend to subscribe to subdued future intentions, rather than invest in optimistic objectives. Their life goals are too often tainted by the feasible, the probable and the likely. They may have a house, if their great aunt dies in time for them to be married. They may get a good job, if their uncle Bruno cashes in on all the favours he’s got coming. They may have children, if they graduate while they’re still young—because everyone knows that passing the private law exam at university is nothing short of a miracle. At least three years ago, my friend Maureen and I were having lunch in the centre of Florence. It was our good-bye lunch so I was sad and she was nervous. A few days later she would be flying back to the United States to earn her PhD. The university had provided her with a check list of all the documents she’d need for the application process. As we waited to be served, she waved the paper in my face. ‘See,’ she said, shaking it at me, ‘In the U.S., you want to do something and they give you a list that tells you how to do it. That is the main difference between here and there. Italy provides no check lists. You’re left with just blind luck to lead you. That’s why in Italy you can be happy, but you can’t do what you want.’ I have not talked to Maureen since we said goodbye that day. And she doesn’t know that I’ve been wrestling with her words for a few years now. Only today, it hit me. In Italy you can be happy, but you can’t do what you want. That is the essence of meno male. Things will not work as you plan, but they will work—and often in the ‘less bad’ way. Italy seldom provides a check list, but one can be happy here. One can be happy here. Thank goodness.

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