Those rule-bending Italians

Cultural Insights — By on February 14, 2007 at 1:14 pm

People in Latin societies tend to be rule-breakers, or at least rule-benders.  Not in a malicious way, of course.  It’s just that their cultures tend to be hierarchical and bureaucratic, yet the people are individuals who value close family relationships more than any abstract notion of law and order.  It’s a clash waiting to happen.  So, whether running a red light or ignoring a government regulation, most individuals are just not as concerned with rules as are, say, the Americans or the Germans.  And one of the best national examples of this rule-bending culture is in Italy.

There is a fun story in today’s NY Times that describes this very situation:

The shrugged shoulder is real, a daily reminder here that part of Italy’s charm rests in the fact that it does not much care for rules. Italians can be downright poetic about it, this inclination to dodge taxes, to cut lines, to erect entire neighborhoods without permits or simply to run red lights, while smoking or talking on the phone.

“We undervalue the law of cause and effect,” said Lisa Tumino, who runs a bed-and-breakfast here near the Vatican. “We overvalue the law of the universe.”

This nugget was mined with a single, simple question: Why were Ms. Tumino, in her beat-up white Nissan, and two dozen other Roman drivers parked on Via delle Fornaci on a recent rainy day when parking there clogged traffic, made the roads more dangerous and was, in fact, illegal?

Boiled down, she was saying: No sterile, one-size-fits-all rule book applies here. Italians prefer a more individual justice for their reality …

Paolo Catalfamo, now the managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy, recalled the six years he spent managing an American investment fund here.

“The issue I spent most of my time on was trying to explain to my headquarters in San Francisco why the rules they received had to be interpreted,” he said. “They didn’t get the concept that rules don’t have one meaning only, that they have many meanings.”

The article has many more examples and theories, and it’s well worth reading.  If you want more depth, try Beppe Severgnini’s recent book, La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.

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