One of the most difficult things to learn in a new country is not the language itself, but how to use the language in the right way.
I arrived in Italy 6 years ago, not knowing any Italian at all. I took French grammar rules and collided them with an unruly Italian accent. It went surprisingly well, even though I wasn’t taking any classes, and within a few months I was able to express my thoughts. It was during Year 2 that I first made a joke. No. Sorry. It was in Year 2 that I first made a joke that someone actually laughed at, which (for me) marked a new threshold of mastery of the language. During Year 3 I started to get more adventurous with grammatical structures, including those that are rarely used by Italians themselves in conversation (at least not by Reggiani). And in Year 4, I finally made some girl friends (YES, it took FOUR years to make friends in rural Italy). After that, the scope of my – let’s just say – “casual” vocabulary blossomed. By Year 5, I really started to see that the next step was learning how to dance in conversation.
And it is a dance.
The complex combination of Italian language and culture requires that a conversation has a certain degree of push and pull — a certain degree of suffering balanced by persistence, of beauty balanced by frustration, and of anger balanced by passion.
It doesn’t matter if we are trying to make the same point or reach the same conclusion. Without this tugging back and forth, it’s as if the content of the conversation loses its validity. We have to disagree a bit before we can agree. Hypothetical situations have to be proposed and dismissed. Rhetorical questions have to be asked and mocked. Sensations of both guilt and justification have to be expressed by both sides. We have to dance.
In the beginning, it was as if I had two left feet. I found it particularly difficult to speak with Italian men in a work setting. I was intimidated by the level of what I perceived as aggressiveness, not understanding that they were just taking the lead and expecting a firm response to grab onto. Several times I remember wilting away behind my marito (husband), simply because I thought they were angry with me or annoyed by me. Something about the exclamation “maaa, daaaaiiii!”, felt almost insulting… like I was clearly an idiot for not being able to understand their point. I didn’t yet understand that this was part of the dance. I didn’t yet understand that one must lightly belittle or tease in order to provoke a more sincere and passionate response. My inability to respond with a firm “guarda” or “dunque” to introduce my opinion made me appear to be an amateur. It was as if what I was saying clearly didn’t mean enough to me, so why should they listen?
The aggressive style of conversation is not the only characteristic that was difficult for me to adjust to, however. There are also many Italians who construct their sentences in a way that is beautiful and almost artistic, but very difficult for a non-native speaker to follow — as if they are dancing around you, without ever clearly stating the intention.
I remember one particularly painful conversation where a work contact was talking my ear off for about 20 minutes, very clearly wanting me to leggere tra le righe (read between the lines). The problem was that I had no idea what the righe were, nor how to navigate between them to find what he was trying to get at. After many twirls around the dance floor, it occurred to me that perhaps he was trying to beat around the bush about not paying me my consultation fee. I, in my painfully tacky American way, simply asked him directly, “Are you asking me to waive my fees?” The poor man didn’t know what to do and for the first time in half an hour was speechless. Looking back on this massive brutta figura of mine, I realize that no Italian would have ever asked so directly for such a clarification. There would have been a little dancing in response, a little tugging and pulling, a little injection of guilt, and perhaps an eventual concession, but only after it’s clear to both parties that a negotiation has taken place.
After that, I found that it helps a lot to preface important conversations, especially when someone may not be aware right away that I’m not Italian. I’ll just poke fun at myself before we begin the conversation by saying, “please excuse my tacky American way of speaking; just let me know if I am too direct”. I find that this allows me more leeway in conversation. I can cut to the chase a bit and they return by joking how speedy and efficient we Americans are. Otherwise I end up in a very dangerous position where my partner in conversation may not know why I am speaking the way I am, and they will just take me for too direct and impolite.
So now, in my 6th year in Italy, I find myself beginning to learn how to dance. I’m becoming more aggressive and doling out more guilt. I’m learning the necessary hand motions. I’m trying to sidestep offensively direct questions (that one is difficult). But I’m also trying to hold on to the style of conversation that makes me who I am.
It’s had consequences, I won’t lie. The more I understand how things work, the more I look back on my first years and think, “oooooooh… THAT’s why they think I’m weird.” Then I have to try and mend all the brutta figures I made early on, which is sometimes impossible. Italians hold on to their first impression of you, more often than not.
But the hardest part is the effect I see it having on my mood and demeanour. I’m changing to fit the culture more, as is to be expected. But it’s a little upsetting to feel like you’re losing yourself a bit. I can’t really be the positive, upbeat person I was before. If I don’t complain a bit or express my suffering a bit, my point is considered invalid or I am thought to be lazy and uninterested.
That concept in and of itself is going to need more explanation, but I will save it for my next post entitled “I don’t suffer enough for Italy.” I’ll try to publish it next week, so please come back and visit. I’d be super interested to hear what other expats in Italy think about learning the “dance” – please leave comments at the bottom of the post.
This post is a COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) joint publication:
To read some other great ways expats are dealing with learning the Italian language, check these out:
- ‘An American speaking Italian is like a dancer having two left feet.‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘Italian the Hard Way‘ – Surviving in Italy
- ‘Speaking Italian has ruined my English‘ – Rick’s Rome
- ‘How I almost lost my native language‘ – Girl in Florence
- ‘Learning Italian in Florence, or that one time a can of Coca-Cola taught me a new language.‘ – The Florence Diaries
- ‘Tongue Tied in Italy‘ – Unwilling Expat
- Englishman in Italy (link coming soon)