Flattery in Italian Culture
by Laurent J. LaBrie
Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
"Let your speech always be gracious." Colossians 4:6The Italians are among the most congenial people on the planet. Their hospitality is infamous around the world. I lived in Italy for four years. Each year after that, when I returned on vacation, I would only be able to inform half my friends. Even with only half of them knowing of my visit, within a couple of days, I had the whole week booked up for lunches and dinners and the ones who could only get two or three meals with me would be angry. I don't claim a magnanimous character but believe that this is the experience of anyone who has lived in the culture. As a case in point, consider that after seven years in America, I never got such a warm reception there. The hospitality of the Italians is one of their finest traits.
Even from the beginning of your relationship with an Italian, he or she will always make you feel like you are the most impressive human on the planet. I constantly found myself complimented on my language skills, my car, my artistic abilities, or on any number of professional, personal or personality traits. And for the first few weeks, you start believing that you really are the finest being to grace the earth. This is part of the charm of Italy. It takes a couple of month to realize that these compliments are not because of your merits. After one has lived in the country for any time, they observe that what they express is often different from what they think.
"Polite lies and flattery can be utilitarian on occasion but, most of the time, must be honestly classified among the devices disinterestedly designed to make life decorous and agreeable. They are the lubricants that make human relations run more smoothly. Flattery somehow makes the wariest of men feel bigger, more confident, and therefore more indulgent, generous and almost magnanimous. It is so common in Italy as to go practically unnoticed. One breathes it as one breathes the scent of violets in woods in the spring, without recognizing exactly what it is that gives one such a delicate sensation. Everybody is constantly being praised by everybody else. A decrepit man is always told he looks years younger; any old hag that she is beautiful, more beautiful this year than last, today than yesterday, tonight more than this morning. Almost imperceptible flattery is in the eagerness with which your orders are obeyed, or the obsequiousness with which your advice is sought in matters in which you have no particular experience." (Barzini L, The Italians, New York: Bantam Books, 1964. p. 76)
"Flatterers are especially common in Italy, where the people have always employed such arts offensively, to gain advantages, destroy rivals, and conquer power and wealth; and defensively, as the squid uses ink, to blind and confound powerful men, dictators and tyrants." (p. 152)
"Plain speaking is often a dangerous practice. Obscurity is the rule in almost all fields. Most newspaper editorials, art criticisms and political speeches are, as a rule, clothed in elegantly ambiguous prose. One must not make unnecessary enemies. One never knows when one's widely accepted and non-controversial opinions will turn out to be compromising and daring. One conceals one's thoughts, unnecessarily at times, because, for one thing, to conceal them is never dangerous while to reveal them might be so. There are often, of course, less discreditable reasons. Concealment in difficult times may be the only way to protect one's liberty, both one's inner liberty, in which things may be thought as one wishes, and one's practical, ordinary, everyday freedom of action. This is the kind of prudence the citizens of Communist countries well know." (p. 223)
This is a danger that any missionary or other ideologue faces. If you haven't gathered it by now, Italy is a frontrunner in political correctness. Standing for your theology and saying that Jesus Christ is the only Way to salvation is very risky. Roman Catholicism's view of Heaven as a meritocracy has made it a politically correct religion. Salvation by faith is too politically incorrect.
There is no lack of political discussion, however. One of the things that amazed me when I first went to Italy was Saturday morning at the piazza. Men dressed in suits and ties, divided into groups of four to ten, would pack the market square of any large city. The topic of interest would usually be politics or sports. Arms and hands flailed about as they hotly debated their point. In the larger groups, the men would signify their turn at extemporaneous speech by entering the circle. The tempo and pitch would usually start slow and mild and rise to an operatic crescendo. The non-melodic buzz of the crowd hid the musical masterpieces being spontaneously composed in the microcosms.
This experience seems an exception to the general political correctness. The hiding of one's true thoughts makes for pleasant relationships, but it makes it very difficult to depend on anything. Italians will make promises that are as stable as the Mediterranean sand. One common proverb is, "The Italians trust the Germans but don't like them. The Germans like the Italians but don't trust them."
"Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and truth." 1 John 3:18
In most churches, flattery is used innocently, defensively, or offensively. A missionary friend of mine put it this way: "The Italian evangelical church is a minefield." I definitely found this to be the case in the Vicenza Popolo di Dio. The group was among the most friendly and flattering groups I've ever met. Warm embraces were common greetings. However, with this strength there came a weakness. They promised a place for my wife and I to stay and helped me establish residency there.
Month by month, they increased rent and decreased our living space while Italian residents of the house enjoyed different treatment. At the same time that they were reiterating the promise that it was our residence, someone was telling the government a different story. Finally, when it came time to return, they told us that we couldn't.
Whether inside or outside the church, a missionary must be aware of the tool that is the Italian tongue. Understanding its use can make Italy a dreamland. Naivite' can make it a nightmare. Don't let your pride convince you of your superiority.
Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
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© 2003 Laurent J. LaBrie