What are you saying to me?
Sometimes it’s hard to, well, say. People communicate with one another in all ways, not only with words. In fact, 60-70% of communication is nonverbal. While traveling in Italy I experienced this firsthand. We don’t speak the same language and had to rely almost entirely on tone of voice, gestures and expressions, especially for the first week.
There is a lot here that isn’t being said. People dress differently, behave differently, act differently, drive differently, and even eat differently here than they do in the U.S. Il Bel Paese is a high-context culture, and communicates more indirectly. Less is said, but more is meant. The U.S. is a low-context culture, communicating the message directly to the recipient. Americans as a general rule say what they mean and mean what they say.
Italia, on the contrary, has this beautiful concept known as la bella figura. It is a nice way of saying they sugarcoat information. To quote out guide Luca, the breathtakingly beautiful yet hardly affordable island of Capri is not “expensive,” it is “exclusive.”
We also had a great time getting to know our apartment this way. The girls’ half is a throwback to our younger years, in a way a time-machine Italian style; it felt like living with sisters again. We were sharing beds (we even had one bunk bed!), secrets, and intimate spaces. We traveled back in time everyday when we did the dishes. We had a good time laughing at each other, since only one and a half of us knew how to hand wash dishes (I could do it, but was inefficient until now). Italy certainly teaches you new dimensions of efficiency, caring about water, but most importantly, teaches you different dimensions of relationships.
Il Bel Paese is a relationship-based culture. This means that before conducting business, colleagues need to develop a relationship. In the United States, people are willing to get straight to work without bothering to find out any personal history about each other. It can be difficult when these cultures try to work with each other- Italians might get insulted Americans don’t care, and Americans could lose patience with Italians for taking too long to get to the point.
Relationships, especially family-based, rule in Italy. Our language school in Sorrento provides discounts to various stores and restaurants in town if we mention we are students. One of the places is a beautiful and “beautifully exclusive” wood inlay shop. The shop, owned by a relative of the school, is a cute little family-run business. Again, the relationship is placed above all else. I loved going in to see the works of art. I bought two wall hangings for my mamma. They are absolutely gorgeous. And, in a way I felt Italian while buying those regali – going from one famiglia to another.
What people wear goes a long way in Italia as well. People dress differently here, both men and women. Referring back to the bella figura, a woman always has her makeup and hair done. She is always well dressed. You will always see cute shoes; even in the rain or on cobblestone streets. How she does it is totally incomprehensible. La Bella Figura is always composed and beautiful. Women aren’t the only ones who dress well here. It’s the cultural norm for men to dress up to go out. Instead of running out in ratty jeans and t-shirts, men style their hair, wear fashionable pants, and always look well put together. They never look like they got dressed in the dark. I doubt their laundry is on the floor of their bedrooms.
The surprising thing with clothing is that although everyone is fashion forward in style, laundry is not. Apparently dryers were a passing fad. Everyone dries their laundry outside on their back porch for everyone to see. This was unexpected to me. I was fully expecting to see only flags flying in the wind, not the bright colors of my neighbors’ unmentionables. Or my own!
Appearance and nonverbal communication has been a major part of Italian culture since the Roman era. Our class went on an excursion to Pompeii. In Pompeii we learned a significant amount about the lifestyle of an average Pompeiian. For them, much like now, looks were everything. People would leave their doors open so neighbors passing by could see all the way in to their beautiful gardens. If they couldn’t afford a garden they would paint a complex, detailed garden on the wall in attempt to convince others that it was real. They always had to look good in front of others; putting on a show. We also learned in Pompeii how important the size of your house was. If you had a large house it meant you had more money or status in the city. Both of these things can be referred back to the concept of indirect communication. No one ever said anything, but through these physical symbols people were able to represent and communicate their status in society. La bella figura has been around for centuries.
As was initially mentioned gestures are also a major part of what is not being said, especially in Italy. People here talk with their hands. They use their hands when they’re angry, when they’re happy, when they’re giving directions, sharing information, or just having an average conversation. I’ve seen it at stores when people are exclaiming over a cute dress. I’ve seen it in the street when two friends meet to say hello. I’ve even started using it when I want to emphasize a point and am at a loss for words. Usually during a great meal (which is daily).
To my great surprise I realized this gesture is used for literally everything. While in Pompeii we were waiting for a few stragglers to catch up with the rest of the group. I happened to hop up on a pedestal to sit. Then I got the Gesture. An old man sitting on the other side of the ancient road said something to me, and pulled his fingers towards himself, as though he wanted to talk to me. I am told what he was saying was that I was sitting on an ancient artifact. I’m still unclear if I was disrespecting it or if he thought it would crumble under my weight. Either way, the tiny gesture he gave me with his hand spoke louder than if he shouted in my ear with a loudspeaker. In any case, I slid right off.
Another day I was crossing the street behind an elderly couple. A car came roaring up the road, barely stopping in time. The old man started shouting in Italian and pursed his fingers. He shook his hand at the car, the words rolling off his tongue like water. I can’t translate what he said, but it was more than clear with the way he shook his hand and the tone and level of his voice exactly what he was saying. I think I’m glad I don’t know that vocabulary. Who knew one gesture could express compliment, excitement, surprise, warning, and so on. How can it say so much without actually saying anything?
The Many Faces of The Gesture:
Lastly, what is the most difficult to get used to is that people here don’t smile the way they do in the U.S. People only smile when they have a reason to do so. This means it’s hard to tell when someone is truly pleased. If you smile at someone you don’t know it usually means you have an ulterior motive. Although my professoressa may disagree, I smile a lot. Learning not to in so as to avoid attention was not and is not easy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I’m Becky an avid world traveler. I’ve been to many beautiful places such as Mexico, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Ukraine. I’ve learned a lot along the way in my travels. I have, however, never studied abroad. That is what makes this opportunity unique. Being that I am pursuing my second bachelors degree, I felt this program would be a perfect fit to help develop some of my career goals related to travel and language. My first degree was in Spanish and I am now studying Communications at Colorado State University. The blend of my Spanish degree, combined with the opportunity to be in Italy really makes me feel at home. I’m so blessed to be a part of this program.
SPECIAL THANKS: To Dr. Julia Khrebtan, for guiding us through this beautiful land of Italy. To our host school, Sorrento Lingue. To the Communications Chair, Dr. Sue D. Pendell for allowing us the chance to take this trip and see the wonderful world outside of the United States.