Stereotypes are overly simplified generalizations made about a group of people, that may have some relevance but it unlikely universally true. Stereotypes generally arise from a lack of intimate knowledge of a people, separated from ourselves by geographical, cultural, language, or economic barriers. As Hafez Adel wrote in the article “Slashing Stereotypes,” “Living abroad taught me that stereotypes endure because they provide a comfortable shortcut to understanding complex matters that usually emerge to fill a vacuum of knowledge” (Abroad View, Spring 2009, Volume 11, Issue 2, page 26-28). Living in Italy has certainty taught me a great deal about the validity of stereotypes typically held about the Italian culture, as well as stereotypes Italians tend to hold about Americans.
To say “living in Italy,” is actually far too broad of a term to communicate anything effectively. There is a great divide amongst the Italian people that I did not appreciate until I got here. As a nation, Italy is about one hundred years ‘younger’ than the United States, and as a consequence of differing, deep rooted tradition, the regions of Italy are very different. A lack of national unity is sometimes a problem here; people identify themselves first as being form their respective region, instead of from the country. For example, I, as an American, would identify first as American, and second as a resident of Connecticut. For someone living in any of the towns comprising the region of Tuscany, their sense of belonging and pride are first to being Tuscan, not Italian.
We often tend to think of Italians as being loud, pasta-eating people who always talk with their hands. And from what I have found, this is completely true. From observing locals, it would often appear that they are fighting one minute, and being loving the next. They are a passionate people, and whatever they have to express will be done with the full use of their mouths and hands. As for the pasta part, I have yet to find a block of the city of Rome in which you can’t get pasta. Or pizza. Or both. Yes, Italians eat lots of other things, and have specialty dishes differing from region to region, but pasta and pizza are on the menu, always.
The stereotype that Italians seem to find the most offensive is of them all being in the mafia. While the mafia does present a real political, economic, and social problem in many part of Italy, particularly the south, it is not an everyday reality that most Italians have to deal with. The mafia is not talked about, it is not highly regarded, and it is certainty not a point of pride. MOST Italians are not actually affiliated with the mob in a personal way.
Studying abroad, particularly living in an Italian apartment building as opposed to a student residence, has also taught me a lot about the stereotypes held here about Americans. They tend to think we are loud, heavy partiers, with a large superiority complex and the right to do as we please. A local student in my class asked me one time about “the stereotype” that Americans drink so much that they get hungover. And well, if you’ve ever looked around campus on a weekend morning, you know that’s even putting it mildly. A bit embarrassed, I admitted that yes, that one is somewhat true. I believe our lack of language skills is another reason Italians find us to be imposing and arrogant. Many of the foreign students in my school can speak three or four languages fluently. They even sit and take notes in English classes, which for many of them is at least a third language. Despite our country’s best attempts to move in the direction of language education, U.S. students usually can only speak English fluently, and perhaps bits of whatever language they were forced to take in high school. The door-lady in my apartment building told me just this week that I need to learn English (I’m trying, okay?).
Above all, I have come to appreciate that stereotypes come from the limited experiences we have with people from another culture. In the United States, particularly the northeast, there are many Italian-American families that still uphold the values and lifestyle that their ancestors in Italy did, my family being among them. Conversely, Italians generally only have their experiences with tourists and study abroad students to go off of. In this way, perhaps our diverse culture serves as an advantage for understanding the rest of the world.
I have chosen the following cartoon to depict the common American stereotype that Italians always talk with their hands. This one is actually true. There’s a joke in my family that the best way to silence and Italian is to tie their hands behind their back, because they can’t talk without them!