As a cultural learning experience for my Italian class, we were also asked to interview locals. I learned that there were two types of people: those who were excited to interact and eager to help us learn as study abroad students, and those who couldn’t be bothered with young Americans. Because of this, I decided to interview my art professor who is always ready to teach me more about his culture and taking a little time out of his day to do so. Before coming to Florence I really wanted to take the opportunity of talking to a local who would be comfortable with sharing a piece of their personal life in order for me to understand the Italian culture better; it’s been harder than I imagined just approaching a random person at a café, especially because I know very little Italian. Not only do my professors speak English, but they’ve also lived in Italy their entire lives and teach American students abroad as a living. My art professor, Luciano, was of course happy to participate in this activity.
I began the interview by asking his opinion on informality versus formality and was amazed by how many more values surrounded and connected to just this one. The Italians, and more specifically Florentines, are very concerned with appearance in all aspects. Rolling out of bed, throwing on UGG slippers and some sweatpants and walking out to class will get you many disapproving stares. For the Italians, dressing appropriately and being conscious of your personal appearance is key to first impressions. For example, there is serious judgment given to a girl wearing tights with a rip down the side, or shoes that are dirty and muddy. I’ve even noticed this myself walking around the city. Many times I’ve underdressed for the given weather (no coat, wearing a dress, etc.), and felt so uncomfortable by the passing looks that I had to go home and change. This value of appearance and formality also relates to respecting the elders or superiors of Italians. Age is to be respected for the wisdom that can only come with years of living and not from reading a textbook. The respect given to elders even carries through the Italian language and using a “formal” rather than “informal” you, which cannot be found in the English language. For example, when asking an elder or superior how they are doing you say, “Come sta?” instead of, “Come stai?” My professor explained that this is extremely important to use with elders of your family, which incorporates one of the most important cultural values we discussed. “La famiglia” is the center of any Italian’s life. Restaurants and businesses are carried through generation after generation, and time outside of work is devoted to spending with the family. My professor explained that there is no difference between a first cousin or third, family is family and is treated the same.
While the interview may have put into perspective many of the contrasting cultural values that America has with Italy, it did not make me feel ashamed of my own values. It brought them “into sharper focus” and I think it has indeed given me “the opportunity to enhance, elaborate, and strengthen the value system” that I have developed and will continuing developing throughout my life (Guide 9, pg. 54). I realized that like Italians I also value my appearance, not for attention, but for the image I project of myself to others. At college this is not always the case because in America there is a value of not judging a person by their looks. Because of this many kids will go to class in the classic “just rolled out of bed” look without worrying about being criticized by others. By comparing these two opposing culture sets of Americans and Italians it shows that neither one is more right than the other and I see both values in myself. I think it is important not to judge a person based solely on their appearance, but it’s also important to respect yourself and project the appropriate image in any given occasion.