Skepticism in Italian and Romanian Character
by Laurent J. LaBrie
Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
"[Italians] learned long ago to beware privately of their own show and to be sober and clear-eyed realists in all circumstances. They mind their own business. They behave with circumspection, caution and even cynicism. They are incredulous: they do not want to be fooled by seductive appearances and honeyed words. They cannot afford to be carried away by emotions. They keep them under control. This does not mean that they are cold people. When it is safe to do so, they enjoy genuine and unrestrained emotions as well as anybody. But they know that the free expression of genuine emotions is a luxury for the privileged, often a dangerous and expensive luxury. Only saints, heroes, poets, gentlemen of means, foreigners, madmen, and the poor, who have nothing to lose, can afford to give way to their emotions. Ordinary people must usually choose between the unrestrained expression of counterfeit emotions and the controlled expression or real ones." (Barzini L, The Italians, New York: Bantam Books, 1964. p. 165.)
One cannot blame the individual who is a product of his environment. The typical Italian has a low level of trust because he believes that all are like him. In Italy, he is often right and in Romania this is even more true, but when the person extends this same lack of trust to trustworthy foreigners, he does himself a disservice.
"After the war, for instance, everybody tried hard to find a suitable answer to the puzzling problem: why was the United States showering billions of dollars on their country? Communists were certain that it was part of a master-plan to impoverish, starve, enslave, and destroy the Italian proletariat. Non-communists could not make up their minds. Were the Americans mad? Many possible explanations were debated and discarded. At the end, most people said: 'Why should they, who won the war, enrich us, who lost it? They must have their own reasons. Whatever they are, there is no doubt the Americans are serving their own interests. Therefore, there is no need for us to be grateful to them.' There is a large part of reality which the realistic Italians never really grasp; there are many things they do not see for being too clear-sighted." (ibid, p. 167.)
Sure, the cynic might say that after World War I, the US realized that to achieve a lasting peace at home, one must help others, but this is a cynical perspective of God's golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is still a step up from "Do unto others before they do unto you." Most Americans are "trustful, unprepared to defend themselves from guile, often unwilling to fight for what they considered small stakes." (ibid.)
This is largely true of the American experience in Romania, as well. The constant begging and smecherie is morally disheartening to the Westerner. Usually, swindling is over very small things; 10 cents more for a head of cabbage because the scale is not balanced, a dollar more for frozen chicken because they packed it with ice, or ten more for a piece of furniture when the promised free delivery is not communicated to the driver. It is a common reality. Most missionaries find their laziness overcomes their desire to promote ethical conduct and submit to the idea that it is really not worth the effort to argue. For Romanians, $10 is a day's salary and well worth the 15 minutes of discussion. He knows that to an American time is money and it is easy to make him spend the disputed sum in time.
Italians historically waffle over decisions made
It is no secret that the Italian government has historically had difficulty taking a stand. Italians themselves joke about it. The first joke started in the 1920's, at the beginning of the Fascist regime.
"The Secretary of the Fascist Party visits a large factory, accompanied by the obsequious company director. At the end of the tour all the workers massed in the yard to listen to a speech. Before addressing them, the Fascist chief looks them over proudly from his podium, and asks the director: 'What are these people's politics?' The director answers: 'One-third of them are Communist, one-third Socialist, and the rest belong to several small parties.' The Fascist's face turned livid. 'What?' he cries. 'And how many of them are Fascist?' The director reassures him quickly: 'All of them, Your Excellency, all of them.'" (ibid, p. 225.)
The next generation, facing a seemingly eminent war with Russia and a blockade of Berlin, found itself equally non-committal. Turning this characteristic into a humorous story was a way to psychologically process their oddity.
"The Russians (the story goes) one day suddenly attacked Western Europe with overwhelming forces. Local defences were immediately pulverized. The United States naturally were unprepared to offer ready help. They needed the usual number of years to make up their minds, manufacture the equipment and train the men. [How things reversed by the time of Persian Gulf War II came around!] The Russians therefore easily went unopposed from the Elbe to Gibraltar in a few days, conquered the British Isles, and organized all the occupied territory according to their political prejudices.
"They set up Communist regimes and exterminated all anti-Communists. In due time, years later, the Americans landed, defeated the Russians and liberated Europe. New free governments were organized, who proceeded to shoot all Communists. At the end, the continent was practically uninhabited. Only handfuls of Britons, Frenchmen, Germans, Dutch and so forth were left in the vacant spaces and the empty cities. Italy alone was overcrowded. In Italy almost fifty million people were left alive. They had obviously remembered one of their old proverbs, which says 'Brave men and good wines last a short time.'" (ibid, p. 225.)
In this characteristic also, Italy is similar to Romania and most third world countries. Romania switched sides in the Second World War and maintains the proverb, "The head that rises above the others is chopped off." In Africa, there is a strong follow-the-leader concept. I remember being in Kigali, Rwanda and the opportunity to ride in the car with a very pleasant Rwandan. At one intersection, there was a choice to turn an immediate right and then a left or to go to the next block to do the same. The first way had a line of cars all the time but I had discovered that the second had no line. Here the American individualist suggested, "Why don't you turn right here?" The Rwandan culture was to go where everyone else was going.
Determine lines of allegiance
"When dealing with an Italian it is always prudent to know exactly where his loyalties lie, to what clique, association or party he belongs, who protects him, who are his friends, and from whom he derives his power. Naturally there are no handbooks listing such indispensable information. The man will often hotly deny his allegiance. Some bodies (the Masons of old, the democratic parties under the Fascist regime, a few financial combinations today) are secret. Nevertheless, the information is not usually difficult to ferret out. Everybody knows." (ibid, p. 221.)
This is what makes working in Italy a potentially dangerous place for businessman and missionary alike. A group will form allegiances that they politely hide. When I started Bible studies in the Popolo di Dio. After months of knowing them, there was virtually unanimous public support for the studies and guidelines given. After five or six, people came up to me complimenting me and telling me how they needed me to lead them in Bible study. At the same time that one of them was commending me, he would publicly make statements about Bible study that others understandably interpreted negatively. When approached, he would say that everyone must have misinterpreted and he would make the correction to everyone. (I don't know if he ever did.) This person held the purse strings of the group and soon had secret allies working with him. This small minority began working politics and usurping the leader who capitulated, ignoring the public popular vote in favor of the studies. Secret allegiances and a system of favors can cause instability in any decision.
"This must be kept in mind by anybody trying to fathom the real reasons for some puzzling Italian decisions, or to foresee some future Italian move. Like all statesmen, after Italians have realistically gauged the relative weight of conflicting parties, they fight a weaker enemy and join a winner. Such rules of conduct make conflicts of all sorts last a shorter time in Italy than elsewhere. The number of worthy and heroic people willing to go on fighting on the side which they believe is right but which public opinion knows will succumb in the end is necessarily small. The rules make some decisions, turning points in history, or revolutions inevitable much too soon, when they could still be avoided, prevented, or deflected. It also often makes their results superficial, unstable and insincere." (ibid, p. 188.)
ImplicationsHow can a messenger of love penetrate the Italian or Romanian heart with the Gospel of grace? Italian insecurity must be assuaged. One must distinguish himself from others demonstrate himself trustworthy and seeking the good of others over the good of one's family or self.
Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
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