Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Italy is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Italian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, Italians value order and hierarchy as an integral part of their society.
For the Italian people, order and hierarchy are an essential part of their society. You can see this represented even in their language. Take the word “ciao,” which is used for both greetings and goodbyes. “Ciao” comes from the word “schiavo,” which means “slave.” Even in speech, there is a sense of serving others. If you wish to do almost anything in Italy, you will need permission, be it informal or formal. This may seem incongruous with the Italian nature, but they believe that everything should be done in a proper order.
One key example of Italian hierarchy is a reverence for the country’s first families. These are the people who have long been in charge of the government and the principal businesses in Italy. These leaders even have public titles, such as Gianni Agnelli(the owner of Fiat, who was called “l’Avvocato,” or “the lawyer”), Carlo Benedetti(a media mogul, who was called “l’Ingegnere,” or “the engineer”), and Silvio Berlusconi(the former prime minister, who was– and sometimes still is– called “il Cavaliere,” or “the Cavalier”).
One associate described the hierarchy of his company thusly, “The senior partner is God. He makes all the decisions. I am there to obey.” This sort of top-down authority stems from the Church, which has a similar system. While this system may seem harsh, it is tempered by the Italian’s great respect for others and tolerance for mistakes.
Another way the Italians maintain order is through something known as “garbo.” Although there is no direct translation to English, the word means politeness, respect, graciousness, and courtesy. “Garbo” involves the way you treat others, both personally and professionally. For Italians, how a person treats someone else is another example of appearance. Treating others with respect and courtesy is representative of a good person. Italians also exhibit “garbo” when trying to handle a difficult situation in the most gracious way possible. Italians will often use language to diffuse a situation, sometimes talking over an issue to draw attention from it. “Garbo” is a prized trait to the Italian people.
Italians often employ a method known as “salamelecco” to get something they want from officials. This term comes from the Arabic greeting “Salaam Aleikum,” and is the ability to use elaborate and obsequious language to flatter someone into doing what you want them to do. This behavior is quite contrary to Americans and the British, who are much more specific and up front about what they want. The Italians may see this as abrupt, while others may feel the Italians are too gracious. If you are not experienced with “garbo,” then communication with an Italian person may be difficult at first, as it may take a while for you to realize what it is he or she wants. “Garbo” can also cause problems when it is used to smooth over an underlying issue.