I should have known that my lack of eye or interest in smart dressing would come back to haunt me one day!
On our first full day in Milan, we attended a brief school presentation about Italian culture and it was very interesting. Fun Fact: as of 2012, under Italian law, all American citizens who request an Italian stay permit of more than 12 months are required to sign an ‘integration agreement’ and by signing this, Americans are required to achieve specific integration goals- failure to complete the integration agreement with the required credits can be punishable by expulsion from Italy!
Credits can be accumulated by signing the agreement, attending government mandated classes on Italian language, civil structure and culture, acquiring an adequate knowledge of the Italian language (through passing a test in Italian!), and by successfully completing a variety of other requirements. This initial presentation I attended was not one of the government mandated classes, but it is designed to help the new teachers understand and appreciate the beautiful diversity we are about to experience. Of course you know that for every rule there are many exceptions, and to be careful with stereotypes, but I found much of what was said in this initial presentation to be insightful. Some of my takeaways:
- Have an attitude of wonder and curiosity;
- Be less judgmental and shift perspectives;
- If we say we are all the same, we are taking away the experiences the other person has had;
- Treat others as they would like to be treated (i.e., you must understand where they are coming from, which could result in a completely different interpretation than what you are taking away from the interaction);
- When first meeting someone in Italy, don’t immediately ask what they do for a living;
- The ex-pat tango: One of the differences between Americans and Italians is the concept of comfortable space between people engaged in conversation. Here’s what happens: Italians stand very close to you when talking, you take a step back (because in America we like more space between ourselves), the Italian steps forward again, until the American is up against a wall with nowhere else to go! I can totally see that happening to me!
- The leave taking ritual: When the conversation is done on the phone, often Italians keep saying ‘ciao’ repeatedly and then keep talking- it’s considered a bit short and abrupt to simply say it once and then hang up. There’s an art to being the last to say ‘ciao’ before hanging up. Similarly, when leaving someone’s home, they often won’t just say goodbye and leave you at the door- they will walk you to the elevator and even as the doors are shutting, the competition to get the last ‘ciao’ in is impressive!
- “Your shoes are your business card.” In Milan, how you dress is “utterly” important and creates trust and respect- especially in your choice of shoes and purse. Italians, particularly those from Milan, are trained to scan/judge you based on your clothes- it is considered the fashion capital of the world, after all! Leather shoes go a long way in identifying you as someone who cares about your appearance, which is a respected trait. They tell everything. OH NO. I’M DOOMED! I have now bought two pairs of sandals for the warm weather, and yes they are leather. Just like when you are pregnant and suddenly you see pregnant people everywhere you look, I am noticing people’s shoes more. I saw this handsome man dashing across the Duomo Piazza and my eyes went to his shoes- they were gorgeous. Leather in a light shade of blue. He looked dressed to the nines. So yes, I judged him on his appearance and shoes and my first impression was that this guy was put together!
- Conversation turn-taking: In Italy, it’s completely normal to interrupt a conversation. It’s a sign that you are engaged and interested. The opposite situation, where you don’t interrupt, makes Italians think you aren’t paying attention. Isn’t that interesting? Don’t take interruptions as a rude gesture. These little pointers are especially important to understand when teaching or involved with people of multiple cultures. Based on cultural experiences, consider this: conversations among Asians is like bowling- people politely take turns talking; among Americans, it’s like tennis; and among Italians, it’s like dodgeball! Now imagine what you would do if you are a teacher hoping to engage all your students from these different backgrounds. First, it seems to me, you must help the students themselves understand and appreciate these cultural differences, and then point them out and do what you can to allow everyone a chance to be heard.
I learned a lot today about the cultural differences between my background and my new home, and I hope to put them to play immediately!