Furbizia – a blessing or a burden?

For the month of July, my fellow COSI’ bloggers and I invite you to join us in navigating the somewhat turbulent waters of discussing furbizia in Italy. As my friends have already written their articles on this subject over the weekend, I’ll nab a few quotes from them as we go along to help me organize my thoughts.

furbizia - July 2015 COSI' topic

photo credit: Flickr user Anthony Quintano

The word furbo means clever or sly like a fox. When I asked my marito if it had a more negative or a more positive connotation to Italians, he replied that it depends on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about.

“By definition, Furbizia is basically a quality of ‘achieving goals using ingenious tricks,’ according to the Italian dictionary. Clever, cunning, sly, are some other synonyms. One could also call it being a massive douche bag, but often in Italy it’s considered smart.”

– by Misty, from “Furbizia: The Italian Art Of Being Sly” at Surviving in Italy

In our house the word has a pretty negative slant to it. Mainly because over the past seven years of living in Italy, I have had a really really hard time with this aspect of the culture. Plus the fact that my husband is a bit of a pignolo, who has low tolerance for other Italians trying to slip one over on him.

“There are two types of people- ‘furbo’ for the clever person who ‘bends’ the rules legally and ‘pignolo’ a way to describe someone as having a kind of stick up their ‘you know what’ and abiding by every rule. Honestly, both of these terms pretty much suck.” 

– by Georgette, from “Why Being Furbo in Italy is Anything but Cool” at Girl in Florence.

Furbi and pignoli, to clarify, are at opposite ends of a spectrum. However, it’s a spectrum that exists in reaction to a world where lines are blurred and skepticism reigns. The furbi are attempting to find every loophole they can, and the pignoli are attempting to close those loopholes on moral grounds. You can end up fighting with both, as each are stubborn and insistent (as they must be to succeed). The furbi can seem sneaky and conniving, while the pignoli can seem snobbish and inflexible. Then, in the same instance, the furbi can save the day by finding a way through the maze, while the pignoli can often restore your faith in morality. As always, Italy finds balance in these extremes.

I, on the other hand, am truly a straniera when it comes to this. For better or for worse, I trust most people. (This is the part where my husband and all my Italian friends start laughing. Not in a ha-ha-that’s-funny way; more in a oh-poor-thing-isn’t-she-cute kind of way). I don’t like to look at people or the world skeptically, and I really don’t like approaching situations with my guard up. It goes against everything I believe in, and I don’t see how collaboration, integration, systems thinking, creativity, or progress can happen in a cynical and skeptical environment.

“On a grander scale the consequences have serious ill-effects on the economy and the social environment. Everybody thinks only of him/herself first without giving a moment’s thought to the greater good.”

– by Rick, from “What does it mean to be furbo?” at Rick’s Rome.

Yet life goes on here, which speaks to the perseverance of the Italian people. Despite the hurdles, the obstacles, the debates, the arguments, the bureaucracy, the cursing, and searching for loopholes… piano piano, bit by bit, this country and her people plod along, albeit sometimes at a snail’s pace.

They’ve been equipped to deal with this from an early age, you see. The skepticism is built in to the Italian psyche, taking advantage of the evolutionary chain of the generations before them in an almost Darwinian way. I am constantly amazed at how my husband can have (what I view as) a very stressful exchange with someone, where he is calling them out on trying to screw him over, and then he just continues with his day! Whereas I would be crumpled in a ball on the floor crying because I’ve just had to insist to some asshole that YES, in fact, you DO have to pay me for my work (a thing I never thought I would have to justify before).

I have learned what little perseverance I have in the past seven years that I’ve been here. Living here, dealing with furbizia every day, has made me harder, more cynical, more skeptical, and generally a more bitter person. I don’t like seeing these changes in my personality, but if I continue to be my sunny trusting self, I’m going to continue to be taken advantage of.

“It is one big mess which seems to overwhelm all who live in this country. Despite all this everyone gets along with the business of living life. After all what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, less naïve, more ‘furbi’ (shrewd) and not so likely to fall victim to the next fraud.”

– by Rochelle, from “The Complexity of Italy’s Cheating Heart” at The Unwilling Expat.

In the end, I suppose you have to decide if you’re ok with your personality changing in the face of constant furbizia. Is it ok to become a different person, a harder person? And do you even really become a different person, or do you think these are just life lessons a manetta (on high speed)? Are the furbi teaching you become perhaps a better person?

I personally am having a hard time feeling like I’m losing my spark that makes me me. Every time someone tries to cheat me out of something or see how much they can request of me before I crack, I feel weaker and weaker. Everyone here tells me I’m so upbeat and optimistic, but I feel like I’ve lost so much of that in the past few years.

What about you, dear readers? I know I have a lot of other expats in Italy reading this. How do you cope with it?

I also get many comments from Italians living abroad. So, I’m curious, how does it work the other way around? Do Italians that move to the States find us ridiculously naive and gullible? Is it a welcome feeling, or do they end up missing the challenges of the furbi here in Italy?


And now some more wise words on the subject of furbizia by my fellow COSI’ bloggers:

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9 thoughts on “Furbizia – a blessing or a burden?

  1. I qualify as neither expat in Italy or the USA, but I must say from the American point of view just getting older makes one more skeptical and distrustful. I don’t trust any salesperson and feel all repair persons are looking to rip me off. The era of relentless telemarketers and email spam and phishing has turned me into an overly cautious person! With regard to “gaming the system”, the US welfare system is widely abused and that is a perfect example of American Furbizia!

  2. Being quite new (a year living in Italy) I’m encountering these words for the first time. After reading everyone’s responses I understand exactly the way some of you feel as I felt the exact same way daily living in Mauritius for 5 1/2 years! I wasn’t aware what they call it there but definitely feel that culturally there was something braided through the culture I didn’t line up with. I was completely naive when we first arrived. Slowly the culture started penetrating our life and I was caught off guard trying to understand, analyze, casting it off as maybe it’s just my imagination. It became so pervasive, I started venting my building discontent and frustrations to other expats and realized that they were experiencing the very same things. I started to build up an “armour” around myself to fortify my skin from these quote “furbo’s” (pignolo’s are few and far between). How did I deal with it? Daily improving myself. I started a martial art, eventually earning my blackbelt even though that was riddled with manipulations and games. Also finding the schools inappropriate, I started homeschooling my children to correct the multitude of imbalances we found there. As a result of all these aspects of the culture I didn’t line up with (and there’s a books worth of it) I channeled that energy into doing my best at focusing on trying new things, working hard, and giving it my best or making the best of it. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have done any of the things without these “furbo’s” in my life to show me which way to go.

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  4. Pingback: The complexity of Italy’s cheating heart | Unwilling Expat

  5. I have lived in the USA all my adult life, but grew up in Italy and I am still Italian. My answer to the question: ‘Do Italians that move to the States find people ridiculously naive and gullible?’ YES !!! and to a great degree. Believing without questioning is implicit in this culture.

  6. Pingback: Tourists Beware: Fighting Furbizia in Italy | Sex, Lies, & Nutella

  7. Pingback: Furbizia | Englishman in Italy

  8. Pingback: Furbizia: The Italian Art Of Being Sly | Living In Italy.Moving To Italy. Loving In Italy. Laughing In Italy.

  9. Pingback: What does it mean to be furbo in Italy?

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