What a difference a word makes

Pondering thecultural divide

Elizabeth Childers
February 11, 2010

Although I know I can never claim the title ‘Florentine,' I have been living here for one month and would like to think that I am no longer a tourist. I prefer to think of myself as a ‘temporary resident.' And as a temporary resident, I am in a position where cultural differences are highlighted, but where the critical eye of the outsider is veiled.


So, with my own critiques silenced, I emphatically assert that Florentines are neither unfriendly nor rude. With the same sentiments, I acknowledge that visitors from different cultures are not, either. Each group has its eccentricities that must be accepted, if not understood. It is important to accept the differences so that you can appreciate the richness and beauty of the culture around you. Consider the different attitudes revealed in a walk down the street, a wait for a bus, or a visit to a shop.



Ciao, y'all!


‘Italians will not look at you on the street. They will avoid eye contact.' This dramatic declaration came from one of my professors on my first day of class in Florence. ‘Tell me about it,' I thought. Although I had been here just a few short days, the lack of friendly greetings was tough to overlook.


‘In Renaissance times, it was believed that the eyes were windows to the soul,' my professor continued. ‘If you looked into someone's eyes, you would see their soul and would forever be attached to that person. And you never knew who you would see on the streets. It could be anyone. Someone not in your social class. Someone your family hates. Someone you hate. Look at Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows how that turned out. And they looked at each other. So, Italians do not make eye contact with strangers on the street.'


Really? Could that actually be the reason my smiles and tentative ciaos were greeted by nothing more than icy stares from strangers? I decided to investigate. I approached another professor, this one Italian, and repeated what I had been told.


‘She is American, no?' my Italian professor asked. After getting confirmation, the professor continued, ‘Why don't we greet strangers? We just do not. We do not know one another and are not accustomed to greeting people we have not been introduced to.'


Now, I am a good southern girl, and down in the lower part of the United States it is considered downright rude to not greet someone you pass on the street. It does not matter whether you are childhood friends or have never seen the person before. You smile and say hello. Not surprisingly, my professor looked at me as though I was crazy when I explained this cultural tidbit. And, to be honest, the idea of someone smiling and calling out ciao to everyone you meet while weaving through Florence's busy sidewalks is rather crazy. To outsiders, however, the stony expressions of locals can seem unfriendly and rude.





Here's a word you won't often hear thrown around on Florentine sidewalks: scusi. Similar to the concept of eye contact and greetings with strangers, it just isn't done. It can be almost amusing to watch large groups of pedestrians march towards each other as if to battle, neither one ever changing position. That is, it is amusing when you are not the one whose shoulder is unexpectedly and brusquely hit by an oncoming person. It isn't that anyone means to ram into your shoulder, it's just that no one seems terribly bothered by it and scusi is rendered useless as it is not an action that needs excusing.



Is this the line?


If you have been in Italy longer than five minutes you have likely already realized that Italians do not wait in line. Whether you are at the grocery store or the train station, a line is a very loose concept. When the bus arrives at the stop, people flood the open doors. It does not matter who has been on the hot curb for 10 minutes and who has been there for 1: space goes to whoever can clamber through the entrance most quickly. While it can be disorienting, think of it as a way to stay alert. This goes for ordering lunch, as well. Get your elbows out and look alive if you want to leave with that panino you've got your eye on.



Ciao, y'all, revisited


Though accustomed to speaking to people I pass on the street, it is not rare for me to go into a shop, browse around and leave without having spoken one word to anyone. But what goes on the street is just the opposite of what happens inside. Italians always address each other in a private space. You should get in the habit of greeting the staff when you go into a shop or restaurant. Say buon giorno in the morning and buona sera in the afternoon. When you leave the building, repeat the phrase, accompanied by grazie.


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