Italian Lessons: Sociability versus Efficiency

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Our American upbringing refuses to let us give in to the Italian mindset that anything in life can be deferred to another time. So, we expats in Italy are fooled. And fooled repeatedly.

Not that we weren’t given fair warning. The very first week here, we went to city hall to meet with an official about processing some registration forms. We were told the person was out, but we should come back the next day, when he would be there. We went but he was not. So, we made an appointment for 3 pm on a subsequent day. We arrived at city hall at 2:55, documents in hand, ready and eager to conduct our business. Only to discover that the entire building was closed.

Now I should be embarrassed to admit this, but we have, since then, repeated a similar scene too many times to remember. You would think we would learn but apparently not. We have shown up at an advertised time for a concert and sat alone in an empty hall. No one showed up for another 45 minutes. Not even the performers. The only thing on the stage were chairs in a state of disarray.

We have had several “appointments” at provincial offices. The first time we were given an appointment for 9 am, but when we arrived we discovered what that really meant was that the doors were unlocked then.  Each time, we waited multiple hours, standing up, as there was no seating.   This has occurred so often, we now view it as a bit of random comedy.  I have often advised prospective expats: “Learn to laugh and laugh a lot. After you finish crying.”

We have also been flabbergasted in dealing with people in executive positions. All our lives, we have been used to dealing with personal assistants (or before that job title, secretaries) who manage their boss’s calendar and protect them from intrusions. Here in Italy, we have sat in an executive’s office and watched while employees suddenly barged in and interrupted the proceedings with a question or needing a signature. At times, the frequency of disruption was almost like a vaudeville routine involving doors flung open every few seconds. We just sat there, nonplussed and — at the same time – oddly entertained.

We have concluded from these experiences that there is a particular profession missing from Italian culture – that of a coordinator. Someone with the job description to manage schedules, organize events, and handle logistics. In the American workplace, this position has been a key to making the use of time efficient. No such position here. Instead, chaos reigns. It’s often like being in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie.

We find ourselves straddling two cultures with very different attitudes about working. American commerce is well known for its efficiency and productivity. The American model of organizing tasks and scheduling is firmly ingrained in us after a lifetime of living in it. We are driven to get multiple things done every day. Like many Americans, we have faithfully made out our daily “To Do” lists.  

Having worked in local government I know that disputes between citizens and government officials can often lead to litigation. A threat to sue if one is not given satisfactory and immediate treatment is almost cliché in American discourse. It seems to be endemic in the culture. Now, however, we live in a social construct that says: “Relax. Calm down. Nothing is that important. Whatever it is can wait until later.” Not terrible advice. It’s certainly less stressful. So, gradually, we have learned to take it easy. Have a nice long lunch in the meantime. By the second year of living here, we had mostly given up making To Do lists.

We now go by a “Rule of Three.” It’s possible to accomplish one solid thing in a day. Two, if we’re lucky. Three would be a miracle. Moreover, we have found a definite upside to this more relaxed culture.

Without the usual myriad of gatekeepers, assistant directors, and minions, we receive services directly from the professional responsible. For example, when we need to see our doctor, we walk in and see her directly, with no intervening person involved. She records notes onto her laptop and then calls the pharmacy to have a prescription filled and waiting for us to pick up after we leave. It’s all very personal and sociable. Despite a prevalent myth in America that socialized medicine is impersonal and bureaucratic, the type of medical service we have received has been attentive, personal, and caring. The lesser degree of organization allows for a more human touch.

A couple of years ago I was recovering from an operation that required minor surgery in a hospital. I was given a prescription by the surgeon to address the recovery process. One day, there was a knock on the door, which I answered it in my pajamas and robe. It was the local pharmacist, asking if I needed any refills. I had never imagined a pharmacist making house calls.

On another occasion, not long after our arrival, we discovered a problem with our banking records. Someone had misplaced or mishandled our documents and it was dragging on for many weeks, to our dismay. Without our requesting it, the manager of our branch drove to the office with the problem, tracked down the documents, and personally resolved it all in a matter of hours.

Italy is notorious for its Kafkaesque bureaucracy and I agree that it can be baffling. However, over time, we have learned how to communicate with the officials at the counter, whether it be the city hall, the post office or the police. Most government workers are fiercely proud of their jobs, so they respond to respect and kindness just like most people. Consequently, we usually get good service. We have cautioned other Americans not to display any sense of entitlement as that is almost guaranteed to result in a disagreeable outcome.

Finally, in the Italian system, officials are given some latitude in interpreting rules to fit circumstances of a place or a person. Unlike American services, its not simply a matter of filling out a form and getting an approval. The official can be more strict or more lenient. Many Americans seem to have a tough time with that, thinking that something nefarious must be going on. It’s not. It’s essentially a short-term social compact: you respect me and I will respect you.

So, which culture seems the more humane? The one that displays efficiency or the one that displays sociability?  

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

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