I spent my spring break walking amongst the mind-blowing ruins of Rome and the picturesque rolling hills of southern Tuscany, but the aspects of my visit to Italy that stood out to me the most were without a doubt the incredible social and interpersonal differences between the Italian people and Americans.
Before I dive into it, a couple disclaimers. I was only in Italy for a week, and only conversed deeply with a few native Italians; however, I felt as though I traveled throughout enough of the country and spoke with a wide enough variety of people to get a general sense of the priorities and mindsets shared amongst most of the population. Additionally, my aim in writing this piece is not to stereotype or objectify the Italian people but rather to describe and analyze the incredibly intriguing differences in lifestyle I noticed while visiting The Boot, some of which may be attributable to general European traits but all of which were noticeably different from the American way of doing things that I was raised with. In this analysis, I don’t intend to imply that either style of life is “better” than the other–they seem so incredibly different that they are almost impossible to compare, and both definitely have merits that couldn’t be accomplished by the other.
First, a few objective observations. The economic regulation of the people of Italy is more strict (i.e. progressive) than is it in the United States–the top tax rate in Italy is 43% as compared to 39% in the US and features a much lower threshold income. Conversely, the social regulation of Italians is more lax–exemplified in one way by the loosely-enforced drinking age of only 18. The apex of their government system, while effective at bringing about positive change within their country, is nonetheless very publicly corrupt–symbolized by, but not limited to, the antics of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
One of my main perceptions of the Italian people with whom I shared insightful conversations is that they came off as very nice, but when a situation arose in which a high-stakes (or even semi-important) decision needed to be made, it seemed that the well-being of family and friends took absolute priority over the well-being of society as a whole. As far as I could tell, there was not a trace of that sense of “looking out” for a stranger in need when that person didn’t have much to gain from such an interaction; perhaps this consistent tendency could be a contributing factor as to why the political elites of the country engage in such corruption. This distaste for strangers was further highlighted by a pervasive xenophobia; all of the Italians I encountered made a backhanded comment about some stranger they perceived to be from a different country, using stereotypes to be intentionally malicious rather than simply funny. Maybe all of this is what brought about the massive economic regulations in the country, such as the high personal tax rates and the nationalization of health care–if the government didn’t force this formal policing of social welfare then the people wouldn’t provide it at all and the slightest wobble in stability of the cooperative structure of the country could result in near-anarchic conditions.
While that aspect of Italian culture was shocking and slightly terrifying to an American visitor, the purely interpersonal mannerisms of Italians were an eye-opening breath of fresh air. It seemed that every part of the day–whether it be getting breakfast, working, or having a nightcap–was centered around face-to-face interaction and conversation with other people encountered while doing these tasks; one of my acquaintances in Italy claimed that his favorite hobby was “chatting and doing nothing else” (on a side note, the Italian language is also by design much more musical than any other language, making any conversative interaction that much more pleasant for everyday life). Italians seems to work to live, not vice versa, and as a result their days aren’t filled with the stress of making and breaking constant plans but rather with the enjoyable flow of learning from and sharing with other people. While some people (i.e. many Americans) may spend their entire lives working around the clock in pursuit of some ultimate, utopian goal, I was told by another knowledgeable local, the personality traits associated with this type of lifestyle lifestyle mean that they will never stop chasing such goals and thus can never really enjoy the fruits that they dream of; on the other hand, Italians make absolute sure that a good portion of their day is spent rewarding themselves and appreciating the better parts of life. Additionally, many of the people I spoke to expressed their distaste for the extremely strict drinking laws in America; since the age is much lower and less enforced in Italy, parents are encouraged to ease their children into adulthood by allowing them to at least participate in events like formal dinners at a younger age. This socially-encouraged easing, as one person told me, is why young Italians seem to be more emotionally mature and able to interact with adults, and also why so many American young adults end up puking over a toilet seat their first few weeks of college and they are given a crash-course introduction into true responsibility and “adulthood.”
So there’s my first attempt at playing Alexis de Tocqueville when traveling abroad–an experience that I felt helped me grow as an individual so much that it’s going to be hard not to do the same next time I visit a foreign country. I left Italy absolutely amazed that, when so many of the products we consume and the media we access are identical in today’s world, the social and interpersonal aspects of our cultures could be so distinctly different. When virtually all of the world has already been “discovered” and uniformalized, it’s great to know that humanity still has the ability to exist and thrive via an astonishing variety of cultural traits and personalities. While the exact origins of this fantastic variety may be too complex to ever really describe, the wonder of discovering and observing them is something that will hopefully never be fully discovered for me or anyone else.