Culture Shock. That is what I’ve experienced every time I’ve traveled to a new place including different regions of the United States. Italy was obviously a bigger culture shock that within the U.S, for all of us I think. Arriving in Rome by myself felt like a weird dream, I definitely felt like a foreigner and an “other”. I was sitting on the floor of the Rome airport, which is something I would consider completely normal. U.S. airports are filled with people sitting on the floor, lying down, and just lounging around waiting. I felt eyes settle on me as vast amounts of people walked by, giving me curious and confused looks. So I discovered I was the only person sitting on the ground in the entire terminal and felt so uncomfortable that I decide to quickly conform and stand up. I changed my actions based on the cultural norms of Rome that I saw within an hour of landing in Italy.
Cultures differ and we experience culture shock because of the different values, beliefs, and norms within cultures. These three components of a culture influence the way cultures operate in several aspects. The way cultures are categorized in different contexts in comparison to one another are through Hofstede’s taxonomies. There are several taxonomies that place cultures on a scale from high to low with zero being the middle. It is important to be aware of where a certain culture falls on these levels of classification, because it will effect the style and manner you will need to communicate with them to achieve a positive and effective exchange whether it be business or casual. Knowledge of a culture and intercultural competence is mandatory when managing across cultures.
The first taxonomy that is necessary to be aware of to bridge the cultural differences when communicating is High vs. Low Context cultures. A high context culture uses more implicit messages that are not specific or precise language. On the opposite side of the category, low-context cultures are explicit and exact meanings are conveyed in conversations. My observations and experience in Italy lead me to realize that Italy can be categorized as a high-context culture pattern. The heavy use of nonverbal communication in Italian culture signifies this. Luckily, this is not my first time experiencing the nonverbal communication of Southern Italy. When I came to Italy for the first time ten years ago for a two year stay, the first thing my family did was take a crash course Italian culture briefing class. We learned a bookful of Italian hand gestures and facial expressions. If I did not have that experience up my sleeve you can guarantee I would have felt even more like an outsider, clueless of what is being communicated around me. Phrases like “Acqua in bocca” (water in mouth when translated) also back Italy’s high context orientation up. In Italian culture this phrase is used to communicate, “be quiet.” Since it has this alternate meaning that is implied in the Italian culture, catching on to less explicit messages will be difficult coming from a low-context culture. If someone came up to me and just said, “Water in mouth” I have no idea what to do or say. Do they want me to drink some water? What’s going on? There are many other aspects of a culture that decide if it is more high or low context, like time flexibility which is also a whole other taxonomy on it’s own. Paying attention to time orientation is important for cross-cultural business or casual interactions, which is why Tanner is focusing in on that more.
A culture can also range from high Uncertainty avoidance and low uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance measures the extent to which a culture desires and adapts to ambiguous and uncertain situations. Italy falls into the high uncertainty avoidance, which means that they favor and follow extensive rules and regulations in regards to social norms. The United States is on the opposite side of this cultural pattern, which means that they are very accepting of social deviants and taking risks in regards to social norms. These beliefs can be attributed to a lot of things, but I think that it has a lot to do with history. Social deviants created the United States, those seeking freedom of religion and change were the first to immigrate to the U.S. Because of that we have a variety of identities that we encounter and accept daily. In Italy, aside from tourists, everyone seems to have similar heritage: an Italian heritage. The values of a typical Italian adult include family and religion, and to steer away from such societal values are less accepted here. One way I also notice this pattern, is through the observation of body modification. As someone who has tattoos and facial piercings noticing other people’s similar body modifications is something I just pick up on. In Italy there are far less people with crazy dyed hair, facial piercings, and tattoos from what I could see. In the U.S. taking part in body modification is becoming so common and is very accepted even in the business world. In Fort Collins there are four tattoo parlors within a ten-minute walk from me. That type of social deviation seems to be less accepted here, which is maybe why not many of the Italians walking around have visible tattoos or piercings. The United States thrives on risk takers, new inventions, and far-fetched ideas, but an attitude like ours would not fit in with this culture, and needs to be considered when crossing the two cultures.
The Indulgent vs. Restraint taxonomy measures the extent a culture controls their impulses and desires. At first glance I definitely categorized Italy as an indulgent society because of the their value of food, wine, and beauty. While these values are important to the society, they do not define the overall indulgence level. According to Hofstede, Italy is actually a more restraint society. After discovering this I thought more about what could be making Italy a restraint culture. Italians do not focus on materialistic things like I feel like many Americans value greatly. The cars here show that, most of the cars here small, old, not visually appealing, and convenient. Every time a nice car like a Mercedes or a Ferrari goes by us we all are shocked to see it since they are so rare here. Clothes can be seen hanging from every window to dry, the Italians do not see a need to buy a big, heavy, and expensive machine that will dry clothes when they have a natural and free drier out their windows. I also believe beauty plays a part in categorizing Italy as restraint too though, Sorrento is right on the ocean, so beautiful and breathtaking, what more could you need? In the United States I’ve often heard the phrase “bigger is better,” whether that means owning a Hummer, or a Mansion, bigger would never work in a town like Sorrento. Convenience trumps indulgence in Italy, and indulging is a part of the culture in the U.S.
Taxonomy that Italy and the United States are more similar to each other in is the masculinity vs. femininity. This cultural pattern is based on a culture’s value of more masculine qualities like power, ambition, and achievement, or if they value feminine values like nurturing, quality of life, and health care. Both Italy and the United States fall under high masculinity. The U.S. and Italy both believe in qualities that will lead to success and the reward that comes along with it. The U.S. is a very competition driven country with tests such as the SAT and the ACT being valued highly in terms of education. In Italy owning, operating, and profiting off one’s own business is often a goal members of the culture strive for. The fact that there are about five stores within a four block radius that sell the exact same products in Sorrento allows me to assume that these stores are competing for customers, otherwise one store would dominate! Succeeding in a law firm in the U.S. and succeeding in a Limoncello store in Sorrento are two very different business environments that have the same drives and goals behind them. Walking down the street past a couple of restaurants is the perfect example of the value of competition too. There is always a host or waiter out front catching your eye telling you they have a good lunch deal or the best pizza in town so you eat there instead of the pizzeria across the street. Once you agree to look at a menu or sit down to eat, the restaurant has achieved its goal. (Key word being achieved.)
Cultural differences exist because of differences in values, beliefs, and norms between cultures. In order to immerse, manage across, communicate, and coexist in another culture, understanding what these differences are is imperative. Once the culture shock dies down, analyzing and understanding a different culture is key to gaining knowledge and learning from that culture. If I did not adapt to the cultural norms here, I would have experience more uncomfortable situations than just being looked at strangely at the airport. The more you know about different cultures, you have the upper hand at communicating. Just from my two year experience Italy that ended eight years ago, I still had a lot of knowledge of Southern Italian culture that made my immersion into the culture, more like a re-immersion. Taxonomies are vital, and they all intertwine with one another. Cultures cannot be explained or backed up 100% just like I cannot explain lots of things regarding the world, but the hidden complexities and explanations that you can discover about a culture are treasures.
About The Author:
Ciao! My name is Kendall Olinger and I’m a senior at Colorado State University majoring in Communication Studies with a minor in History. This is my first return to Italy since my two-year stay in middle school in Naples, just an hour away from Sorrento. There will never be enough time in Italy for me to be fully satisfied. I would live here again if the opportunity were ripe. This two-week program was incredible, amazing, beautiful, magnificent, and all other words synonymous with great. I’m convinced that Italy is the most beautiful place I will ever visit in my lifetime and it has the best food and environment for a study abroad program.
Special thanks to Dr. Julia Khrebtan and Philip Hoerhager for an amazing program that I gained so much from both academically, and personally. Thanks to Sorrento Lingue Institute, our host school and Colorado State University and CU Denver study abroad offices.