Monday, April 19, 2010

Italian (lack of) tact

I'm sure I've touched on this topic before, but I was smacked upside the head by it the other day and feel the need to share it with you all.

I had been working from home on the translation of a very difficult Italian documentary, I miraculously and stylishly (yes, I'm allowed to pat myself on the back now and again) finished it and sent it to the office. The next day the director calls me to thank me- wowsers! She was immensely grateful because she herself understood how complex the topic was and how tricky it was to condense it all into fluid subtitles. She and I had a friendly chat and she said she hoped we could work together again. Great!

A few days ago, I was at the dreaded Tiburtina office (not because I dislike the office itself, I just despise the commute) and lo and behold, said director is there. She had some adjustments to make to the documentary so they call me in. I introduce myself and she looks at me with total shock on her face and says: "You're ___? But you're just a ragazzina, I thought you were much older".
BOOM, how's that for class and tact?! Really, lady? Do you have no control over what comes out of your mouth? You really think that's an appropriate thing to say in a professional setting? Plus, if homegirl had been 80 years old, I might be able to understand her shock, but at most she was in her 50s… and since I'm in my mid 30s, I'm not really sure what the big deal is.
I politely smiled and said: "Well, looks can be deceiving. I am older than I look" (and mind you, that day I just happened to be dressed more "formally"- which means I wasn't wearing a t-shirt and jeans so I looked a bit more adult-like) to which, Miss Tact replied: "But still, I never imagined you would be a ragazzina" and carried on mumbling and bumbling, almost horrified by this discovery.
I just found it so rude, inappropriate, and unnecessary for her to make a huge verbal ordeal about my age and what she thought it should/would be. So in her mind, in order to be professional or capable, one has to be an octogenarian?
Not to mention it's downright wrong to address physical appearances at all in a work setting. If I had rolled up in a wheelchair would she have said: "Oh, from your voice it didn't sound like you were in a wheelchair". If I were fat would she have said: "Oh, I never imagined you'd be so fat"... I think you get my point, making comments of this sort is flat-out stupid. Not to get all gung-ho American on you, but it's something I've encountered many times in Italy. That's not to say coworkers don't comment on my age in the States, they do and they have BUT never upon first meeting me! If they do mention it, it happens after we get to know each other or after we've been working together for a while. I find Italians to be seriously lacking in basic workplace etiquette. In the US, you never know who you're dealing with so you tend to watch your words. You don't know if you're standing face to face with the next creator of Google or Facebook, or some genius graphic designer, or some musical prodigy, or some billionaire so you avoid dumb-ass assumptions and generalizations in the workplace. While Italians tend to be very judgemental and very image-biased in the workplace. It's a country where the way you look seems to be more important than what you're actually capable of. Maybe this explains why the country is stagnating instead of progressing....


KC said...

I've always found the lack of tact strange because it seems at odds with the cultural imperative to be furbo. I mean, it's hard to pull a fast on somebody when you're so completely open about what you think of them!

The way that so many Italians regard anything outside their (very narrow) idea of the ordinary with suspicion really bothers me. I can imagine a similar conversation to the one you had with the director happening in the U.S. actually, but it would go like this: "Wow, I'm surprised that you're as young as you are, your abilities suggest that you have much more experience!" Still mentioning age, but only out of surprise, not out of disdain for something that doesn't fit into their worldview.

Anonymous said...

Amen to THIS. I am convinced Italians will never learn the distinction between being honest/frank and being just plain tactless and rude, while simultaneously putting you down or making you feel inadequate. I'm convinced it has a lot to do with what I deem the "national insecurity" -- deep down, they must know they're lightyears behind other Euro and western countries when it comes to, you know, making contributions to society and the world. I'm 25 and constantly being told "oh, but you're so YOUNG" -- yeah well, that doesn't mean anything, get over it! Hrmph.


Nerys said...

I know exactly where you're coming from. I'm 24, and still sometimes get asked if I'm a maggiorenne (the last time was on Wednesday!). Being/looking young in this country is a burden sometimes, people just don't trust you professionally - if you're not too young to have got the job to start with that is!!

J.Doe said...

I can understand your frustrations at being told that you are just a ragazzina but my experience in Italy was the opposite. At the age of 35 I was told 'you are too old' for several job interviews. I was also told at one interview that I probably will be be focusing on having babies rather than any work so I wouldn't be a good employee. (this statement was based on my 'old' age)
It all boils down to the same though. no tact.

Anonymous said...

I live and work in Italy too and, much as I love the generous and fun side of the itis, the rudeness is unbelievable sometimes and, I have to say, a lot of it is from females. Could be a competition thing- shame though.

Anonymous said...

Another thing I find difficult here is the intrusion one seems to get because of the fact of being foreign. It's nice but I sometimes feel I am under surveillance 24/7- any tips on dealing with this? Apart from that and all the things you mention in your blog, I heart Italy too!!!

Kataroma said...

As Romerican points out there seems to be this incredibly tiny 'sweet spot' between being too young and being too old in the Italian world of work. It's weird when people tell me that you can't get a job if you're a woman over 35 but then at the same time you're supposedly not professional if you're under 50. You just can't win!

I'm 38 and used to look younger but aged a lot appearance wise when I was sick last year. Anyway, I think a lot of Italians look older than their age because they fry themselves in the sun every August. I've been shocked to see how wrinked a lot of Italians are already in their 30s.