Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behaviour.
Bad news first.
Venezia, 1588. Giovanni Della Casa published his Galateo, overo de’ costumi, a courtesy book, a short guide to every-day good manner, shortly become a best seller all over Europe. The word Galateo is in fact still used as a synonym of ‘good manner’, buone maniere, or buona educazione.
But what’s Galateo?
Answers may vary. Burping noisily at the end of a meal is normally considered impolite. But in a few countries that’s a way to show how much you enjoyed the meal.
Paese che vai usanze che trovi, as we say.
During my time in the US I have heard many times “oh you Italians are so formal” for things that any Italian would consider just “polite”, minimum level of politeness, or even “not being rude”.
So if you want to know the reason why your Italian friend had a vaguely scandalized look on his face at something you did, here’s a short list of culturally based variations of the idea of good manners.
Ok, we have a reputation to uphold. It’s pretty clear that we pick clothes in a really different way, and I believe that even the less fashion-victim-inclined Italian would be puzzled at some American habits.
I believe that any Italian in the US has a similar impression about the way in which Americans choose attire according to the occasion: first date with a girl/guy? Family dinner at a good restaurant? Mass? Class? No difference. Baseball cap, tennis shoes, shorts, and hoodie are perfectly fine.
That’s the reason why your Italian friends had that puzzled face.
As a matter of fact, the Italians don’t go to class wearing shorts. You don’t wear shorts to go to the museum. You definitely don’t if you go to the Restaurant. If you go to the Church wearing shorts they can literally kick you out.
It is considered inappropriate, consequently, somehow impolite.
It is not a moral judgement (well, in the Church it is, but that’s an entirely different issue: religious space, religious rules etc); the problem is not how many square centimeters of skin you are showing. If you have ever watched Italian TV you know that the Italians are not scandalized from nudity; it is just a matter of appropriateness.
2. Class behavior.
Tutto il mondo è paese (lit. ‘all the world is a village’): good students and bad students look the same all over the world; bad habits in class: talking, texting, chatting, sleeping… are the same everywhere. But in Italy nobody eats or drink during a class. You can quickly sip some water from a bottle, but nothing more. It would be considered impolite.
But most importantly (and this is based on my teaching experience in an American college): seriously guys, yawning noisily showing your uvola, is not ok. Never. In Italy that’s considered extremely impolite; people would be seriously offended to see that. An Italian Professor for sure would kick you out of the class if you yawn in his face. So per l’amore del Cielo (‘for Heaven’s sake’) cover your mouth.
3. “You don’t understand”
We don’t say that. That’s rude. It seems you are saying to the other person that s/he stupid and unable to understand. We say “Maybe I didn’t explain it clearly, let me try again”.
4. Table manner.
This is not a particularly bad habit, nor a real issue, but I’m quite sure that my fellow countrymen find somehow funny the way in which many American grab forks. As they were swords and meals a Crusade.
Now I know you all hate me.
But next post will be about good news, I promise.