fter six years in Italy — the beauty and the beast of nations — it still amazes me how rigid Italians can be when it comes to expressing (and defending) la bella figura. For those unfamiliar with the term, Bella Figura means conducting yourself in a way that makes a favorable impression on others.
For Italians, though, it’s signifies far more. It’s a way of life and a system of implicit rules and protocol. Unless someone clues you in on some basic secrets you stand to be on the wrong end of bella figura, which is to say brutta figura.
First come the unique and essential formalities.
There are many. My advice: Learn them all.
While you might call a boss by his first name in the Anglo-Saxon workplace, first names don’t cut it in Italy (nor do female bosses; there are few). If your boss is named Robert Smith and that he has college degree, you refer to him as Dottore Smith, or Dr. Smith, in deference to higher education (which wasn’t the norm in Italy until the mid-20th century).
If he’s a professor or a medical specialist it’s Professore Smith or Professor Smith. Calling a professor a doctor can land you in the hospital.
If Robert Smith is an architect, he’s Architetto Smith or Architect Smith. Strange but true (and I was corrected once), so don’t try this at home.
Titles mean station in life. Don’t scoff. They matter.
Then there’s the plastic water bottle issue. Summers in Italy can be scorching and no water is not an option.
But have you ever noticed that Italians never carry bottled water? Ever.
I didn’t, until the barista at my breakfast bar told me one day that I was like a camel. Why? I carried a water bottle. My boyfriend made a similar quip. “Don’t forget to put the bottle of water in your purse,” he’d say, “you never know when you’ll be stuck on a desert island.”
This admittedly threw me. Americans are obsessed with water. There are different bottle shapes, sizes, even flavors. I started looking at Italian counterparts to see how they handled thirst. Two words: They don’t.
On my daily bus commute from home to work, I never saw anyone with bottled water. Not even in the dog days of summer. I began asking around to find out why. Their answer? According to my neighbor, “è brutto andare in giro con la bottiglia d’acqua.” Basically, it’s tacky to walk around holding a plastic bottle. And even tackier to have others actually see you put your mouth on the water bottle, she explained. Drinking water in public is tacky? Um, okay.
Then there’s fashion, pretty much the name of the game in Italy.
I remember my first trip to an Italian gym. Ah yes… “la palestra” Naturally, I pictured all gyms to be pretty much the same everywhere. While this is true up to a point, Italian gym culture has its own rules.
In America, I’d show up dressed for a workout, often in a baggy t-shirt and soccer shorts. Unless I was dropping by after work, why trudge to a gym in formal wear? Italians, on the other hand, wouldn’t be caught dead walking outdoors their sweats. Not even a short walk from a car to the gym is permissible.
Nooooo. It’s just not fashionable. Instead, gym rats headed to a workout from home will be decked to the nines. They’ll change only in locker room. They of course need to make sure everyone knows what they look like in their disco clothes and their workout gear. Not to mention that a women’s workout outfits would never just be a simple baggy T-shirt and sweatpants.
Valentino wouldn’t have it any other way.