Thursday, March 12, 2015

Intercultural Intimate Relationships and Life in Italy

   Did I catch your attention with the title?

   Sorry, this post is not about some Italian man I've met and fallen in love with. It's just the title of the reading I had to do for my Intercultural Communication class yesterday, and was the title of the subsequent lecture we received.

   But it really was enlightening, and I hope to share some things with you that I learned in the lecture!

   For yesterday's class, our professor brought in a guest speaker: his wife. Born and raised in Instanbul, this Turkish woman (also a Muslim) left all she knew and all she was familiar with (her family, her home, her language, the patterns and expectations of living in Europe's most populated city) and moved to a small town on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. She married this man, whom she could not even communicate with in his native language (they both spoke English as a secondary language), and moved in with him and began searching for a job and slowly learning Italian.

   Obviously, there are a lot of intercultural communication-related obstacles to overcome. First, living in a new culture. Then, interacting with someone, on a highly intimate level (marriage is rather intimate, after all), and learning how communication and behavior differs between cultures. And the list goes on and on.

   They have been married since 2008, and have a daughter who speaks Turkish, Italian, and is learning English.

   They laughed as they described several instances in which their cultural differences led to misunderstandings and humorous scenarios. For instance, when their relationship was still transnational and required "Skype dates," she would never be the one to say "Okay, it's 2 in the morning so I am going to go to bed." He wondered for months why he was always the one to initiate the "goodbye" routine, and he felt bad each time, thinking she would be perfectly content talking the whole night through. Maybe he wasn't as committed as she was? He finally approached her about it, and she laughed, saying, "Of course I want to go to bed and end the conversation. But it would be rude for me to be the one to end the conversation. You are the one who called me." Apparently, whoever initiated the phone call and pressed the little green button on Skype was responsible for ending the call as well--otherwise, it was rude!

   In another scenario, after they had been married for about a year, my professor went out with some friends for a late night, only to come home at around 1 in the morning to find his wife waiting outside in the garden. He asked her why she was outside, and she said she had forgotten her key in the house and was locked out. Shocked, he demanded how long she had been outside and why he didn't call her. She responded that it had been around 4 hours, and it would have been rude to disturb him.

   She also shared that Italians are much more open and disclose much more than Turks. At an Easter celebration with her husband's family within the first year of their marriage, a family member leaned over to them at the dinner table and inquired about their sex life. She was horrified that this would even be a topic for discussion (the professor admitted that he was taken aback as well, stating that his uncle was simply crazy).

   She then opened up to us about the struggles of being a Turk in Italy. She claimed, "The Italians see a Turk or hear 'Turkish' or 'Muslim' and get this idea of a brutal extremist. I'm not that." She said that she has gradually been accepted into the culture, but will still run into issues with people stereotyping against her for "something that my people did many many years ago."

   Following the lecture, the floor opened for discussion, and I asked her how she dealt with being ousted by the Italians, as us Americans are as well. I asked why the Italians were so against us being in their country. She looked at me with compassion and understanding, and said, "Yes, I know exactly what you are talking about. Let me tell you what it is..."
   She then launched into the biggest rant I have ever heard, and my professor just sat there with this hilarious look of horror on his face as his wife described the Italians' sense of superiority and their relentless belief that everything in Italy is the best. The food is the best, the views are the best, the art is the best, the history is the best, the cars are the best, the clothes are the best, the wine is the best. "You know," she said mid-rant, "I think Italian people travel just so they can say, 'Oh, well, it's not as beautiful as Italy!'" We laughed as she continued on, ranting about how Italians are so convinced they are amazing at everything and that no one knows any better.

   And I have truly observed this. Italians are very proud of their culture. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! They have a lot to be proud of. They have a rich heritage, have amazing food (seriously, it's incredible), and have produced many of the greatest thinkers, artists, architects, musicians, etc. the world has ever seen. But this pride transcends national identity. They are proud of their favorite restaurants, their favorite stores, etc. "Oh, I know the best gelato place." "My mother's tomato sauce is the best." "No one does (fill in the blank with literally anything) better."

   They have convinced themselves that they are superior in every way, and that all the rest of the world can do is sit back and observe in awe. But, when the rest of the world comes to observe, they don't want us here! It is like a grandmother who wants the grandchildren to appreciate her fine china set on display, but you can't touch it, breathe on the glass, or even imagine one day owning that china set!

   Why is this? The professor's wife explained: "Immigration and tourism--but especially immigration--is a very new concept for the Italians. And they have a hard time accepting that. Coming here and being different is not acceptable for them."

   My professor chimed in, stating, "The world is globalizing, and there is exposure to new things and the spread of other ideas, and that scares the Italians. They want to hold on to their culture and their heritage and not let anything in."

   What was their advice? His wife, who has personally faced these struggles to a degree I cannot even begin to comprehend, said, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Try your best to live like them."

   My professor added, "The Italians will not make friends with an American or Turk; they will make friends with you. They don't want you to wear your culture like a stereotypical sleeve, but be respectful of the culture, remain true to yourself, and show them that you are a genuine person interested in their culture and you have something to offer as well."

   On a personal note, I have noticed some changes gradually in my daily life here. The butcher at the market smiles when he sees me, as he recognizes me now and knows that I want 1/2 kilo of sliced chicken breast. He knows that I'm here for a while, and that I'm serious about being here and want to experience the fresh meat and produce that they have to offer.

   Italy is undergoing changes with immigration and tourism. The globalizing world is coming in on Italy, and while they may not know what to do with that now, they are certainly adjusting. It is interesting to witness and experience firsthand, and every time I face a challenge because of where I come from and the fact that I am something new for them, I want to feel proud rather than ashamed. I respect their culture and heritage, and want to immerse myself in it and appreciate it, not destroy or tarnish it.

   And slowly, but surely, they are realizing that.


  1. Hi Lidnsey,

    I am Zachary Janus a sophomore Petroleum and Leadership student at Marietta. First of all I would like to say that I hope your trip to Italy is going well and is exceeding your expectations. I would like to ask what differences in leadership do see from your professors compared to Marietta College. In class we recently discussed Western Leadership styles. American and Italy both fall under this category, but I assume there is still variances between the two. IN western culture is typical to see a leadership position as a prize. Professors are leaders and in turn they are respected for obtaining this position of power. There is also a leader-follower relationship that is important is western societies. Leaders must have the support of their followers, but followers have responsibilities as well. Would you say that these values of leadership pertain to Italy as well or does it vary? Thank you for your time and I hope you continue to enjoy your trip!

    1. Zachary,
      Thanks for your comment! I am definitely loving Italy, and recommend it for any future vacations or study abroad endeavors! As far as teaching in the classroom, I would say that the professors here do not welcome questions or comments from students as much as in the States, but they still do tolerate them. Unfortunately, a lot of the students here in the study abroad program are taking all their classes Pass/Fail, so this semester is basically a vacation for them where they just have to get a "C" in a class to pass. So, they don't take assignments or lectures very seriously. I don't see the profs getting bothered by this a lot, as they are likely used to it. However, there is also this idea here that it is wholly the student's responsibility whether or not they want to succeed, and the teacher will let them sink or swim depending on how hard the student works. Following that, they are much more high-context in the classroom, with more ambiguous directions and guidelines for papers, projects, etc. This constantly frustrates us American students! But, I am trying to learn to get used to it. It is not uncommon for a professor here to say "Bring me a presentation for a business proposal next week. Worth 15% of your final grade" and that is all the explanation you get.

  2. Hey Sissy,
    I find it interesting that even though the United States and Italy are western cultures, immigration is somewhat new to Italy, whereas it is a very relevant issue in the United States. Going along with this, the leader/follower relationship is supposed to be a transaction. But as you wrote in your post, it seems as though it is not an equal transaction for foreign followers. Is this true? Do foreigners have to work their way up to an equal transaction? Have you noticed this in your work as a tour guide? I miss you sis.

    1. Sissy!!!
      Foreigners DEFINITELY have to work their way up.
      There is a significant lack of jobs in Italy. I was speaking to an Italian just the other day about this. He expressed his fear in Italy's future, stating that any Italian who graduates and wants to pursue a serious career often goes to the US or England or elsewhere, leaving Italy to suffer and continue to go downhill. So, jobs aren't as plentiful. The immigrants that come here work primarily as street vendors, since Italy is suffering with a lack of jobs and prefers to give jobs to Italians.
      We were also recently speaking in my Intercultural Communication class about this concept of a transaction, and my Italian professor expressed shame in the fact that he has witnessed several Italians making unfair 'transactions' with foreigners simply because they know they are foreigners and can get away with it. For example, on the train, some Americans forgot to validate their ticket prior to boarding. Rather than fining them, the conductor told them that he would let them get away with it if they gave him 2 euro each so he could buy himself a coffee. So, the transaction is not always necessarily fair. However, this is rare, and a majority of Italians treat foreigners fairly/with respect if we do the same!

  3. Hi Lindsey,

    So first I must say that I am extremely jealous that you are in Italy because I am kind of obsessed with it.

    That aside, I find it interesting what you and your professor's wife have witnessed. I studied Italy for a report that I gave in LEAD 203 and everything I found said that Italians were quite welcoming to tourists. Do you think that it might be because most tourism goes to Rome that the people of Florence are not used to tourists? Or do you think it is just hard to gain trust in that community? We studied the nature of gaining trust and it appears to be very hard to gain trust even in relationship based cultures such as Italy.

    What is it like to build relationships with the locals? I know you said that the butcher is being friendly now but what about neighbors or others that you see on a regular basis? How do your professors treat you versus the way they interact with other students?

    I'm very interested in hearing back from you!

    Have fun the rest of your time there!

    1. Megan,
      Glad to hear you are a fan of Italy, because I certainly am!
      It is definitely something with trust. Unfortunately, the Italians have grown a little intolerant of American students because they tend to party a lot more than Italians, and they feel that they corrupt their youth.
      Florence has quite a few tourists as well, but I have noticed that a lot of the tourists are quite rude, which is off-putting for the Italians. They are happy to share their culture with us if we are polite and ready to warmly receive it. However, I cannot blame them for being a bit hesitant given trends with tourists.
      Building relationships with locals is so fun! I have a cafe I go to every day, and they all know my name and my order the minute I walk in. The barista and I have become close friends (he is gluten intolerant too, so we go out to pizza together on occasion!) I have also made friends with a leather shop owner, and he even gave me a leather watch for my birthday! Once you get over the linguistic and cultural barriers, it really is amazing and quite easy. I even have one friend here who does not speak any English--she works at the cafe too, and loves when we come in. We have small interactions ("Hello, how are you?"), and she gets excited every time I learn to say something else!
      Professors try to keep a more distanced relationship with students. This is likely because they are used to only having students for one semester and then they return to the states. So, it is definitely not like Marietta College, where you will find that some of your professors are your advisors, mentors, and close friends!