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i don’t really care how are you doing
on being an italian in a sea of british politeness
when i first arrived in the uk i couldn’t understand anybody at all. before leaving italy i had watched the entirety of desperate housewives without subtitles to get ready and was genuinely shocked to find out that nobody spoke like that in the uk. i know what you are thinking, but what do you expect from someone who watched the movie “hook” as a kid thinking that the united kingdom was in the north of the united states. don’t get me wrong, i did eventually learn the truth geographically speaking, but remained completely unaware of the american vs british pronunciation diatribe until i landed in london gatwick. after all, even the narrating rooster in robin hood sang with an american pronunciation. don’t blame me, blame the american cultural imperialism of our childhoods. good for you if you were watching this warm homey polish bear growing up instead.
but as per usual, i digress.
when i first arrived, i would call vodafone to top up my sim card and simply hear:
… press one.
… press two.
…. press five.
…. bye bye!
and then call again. and again. up to five times in a row –until i could finally understand how to top up.
it took me watching all the tudors and the borgias with jeremy irons as a sexy pope to finally get somewhere somehow decent with my understanding of the language. and once i could understand people speaking, it took me a little bit more time to be able to process a response fast enough not to be a drag to the person talking to me. once i got there, lo and behold i could finally answer the omnipresent british question: “how are you doing?”
what happened after that was simply heartbreaking. i realised people were walking away from me while i was answering the question. nobody wanted to hear my answer. properly answering was inappropriate –the question was purely ornamental.
i heard the same “how are you doing” sad story over and over again throughout the years from all the italians in the uk i ever met.
in italy, if someone decides to ask you “how are you doing” they intend to hear the answer. if you are in a hurry or believe the other person is in a hurry you simply wouldn’t ask this sort of question.
we use pronouns to mark different grades of friendliness: a friendly pronoun (you) that sounds informal and warm and a courtesy pronoun (she/her) that gives a polite and colder tone to sentences. english sentences do sound very warm and friendly to italians used to constantly context-switching between colder and warmer tones to deal with different people.
it’s a weird combo, but in italy we tend to be rude and friendly at the same time. it takes very little time to both befriend and italian or make an italian snap. rudeness is the national default. i found this fact well explained by airport signs when wanting to let visitors know that they need to treat staff with courtesy. in london, signs say that abuse towards staff won’t be tolerated. in milan, signs say that if you are polite to staff, you can expect politeness in return. this is clearly not how politeness works in theory. by definition, a polite person is someone who has a polite demeanour and behaviour by default. but that’s not how politeness works in italy. as the milan sign explains perfectly, politeness is often an act of social reciprocity. so for italians coming to the uk the cultural shock is immense –all of a sudden everybody is spontaneously and excessively polite.
our brains cannot help but interpret this politeness as a sign of social reciprocity and react with friendliness to it. british people recoil in horror –they cannot trust anybody this fast, they didn’t want to be our friends. they were just being polite.
once we settle down in the uk we all tend to adjust to the new politeness standard of the society while still being very friendly. this is the social curse you will have on you as an italian in the uk for the rest of your life. you become this hyper-friendly and hyper-polite gmo in a sea of naturally and effortlessly polite but unfriendly people.
of course one learns and recalibrate with time (it’s a forever task), but i feel like our italian brain will always suffer a slight mismatch in all social interactions–it’s kind of inevitable. there is still an appropriate place in the british society to practice our excessive friendliness though: it’s at the pub over the weekend –but only after a few beers.