Dinner with Italians: The outsider’s cultural minefield

Posted on January 21, 2013

When you’re living on your own, it’s easy to forget just how much a social situation can call out and underline cultural differences, the kind of differences that tend to slide into the background during day-to-day life and then rear up conspicuously in group settings. Generally, it’s the little things that tend to shout the loudest – subtleties, slight confusions; a mountain of tiny misunderstandings. And the best way to put these differences on show? Clearly, dinner at a restaurant with a large group of Italians.

Let’s start with the kisses. Nothing presents an environment more rife with opportunities for extreme social blunders than the exchange of multiple kisses with an assortment of people ranging from good friends to near strangers, especially for someone who’s grown up in a culture with a healthy appreciation for the concept of personal space and the belief that a good firm handshake is one of the best ways to greet people who don’t yet fall inside the boundaries of the friend zone.

When I arrived in Italy, the kisses terrified me. The first few people who attempted to greet me this way likely saw a flash of bewilderment and panic flood across my face as they leaned in towards me; second nature for them was unnatural for me. I honed my kissing technique over the next few months, surreptitiously watching and taking mental notes as people all around me exchanged effortless baci without a shred of hesitation, and eventually I started to think that I had made some solid, measurable improvements. I was more fluid, less likely to get confused over which side of the face I was supposed to move towards first, better at concealing those little flashes of panic. But this weekend, while meeting up with a group outside of a restaurant in Testaccio before a dinner together, I exchanged kisses with a friend, and then a friend of a friend – someone I had only met once before – which prompted an astute observer in the group to comment on how stiff and awkward I looked: “I guess you don’t greet with kisses in Canada, do you?”

Of course, hearing this did nothing to take away my remaining anxiety over the kisses, which have a plethora of factors to stress over and then subsequently screw up. Consider the variables: Do you press your cheeks together? Peck the air beside the cheek with no facial contact whatsoever? Or do you settle for something in the middle; the briefest of cheek-to-cheek glances, the slightest suggestion of contact? And then there’s the kiss itself – are you expected to actually make a small smooching sound into the air, or should the kisses be silent, implied only by the cheek-to-cheek motion? Months of observation and somewhat hesitant participation indicates that any of these situations could happen: One person might make a nearly-deafening smacking noise directly in front of your ear, while the next might silently graze their cheek against yours in an almost disinterested way. As far as I can tell, there is an unwritten code of kissing, and the only way to know this code is to actually be Italian, or to learn it very slowly, through trial and error – and really, mostly error.

Greetings aside, there’s the issue of conversation: As the only outsider, the sole foreigner invited to join a group of friends capable of talking incomprehensible, rapid-fire Italian circles around you, do you follow the smile-and-nod routine, in which you latch yourself onto one of the conversations taking place around the table, desperately attempting to follow what’s being said and laugh in all the right places while not being at all sure if you actually have even a remotely correct sense of the conversation’s true meaning, or do you try to actually contribute, thereby subjecting the entire table to the linguistic equivalent of a toddler attempting to join an adult’s conversation? Alternately, should you feel bad when the others switch to English – at the expense of their own enjoyment, I’m sure – to make sure you’re properly included? As enjoyable as the dinner inevitably is, the whole situation is draped in a thin veil of unease.

Even the food itself jumps at the opportunity to underline and embolden those little cultural differences. Everybody else will known what to order, how much wine to drink, when to suggest sharing and how many courses to eat – and they will, without a doubt, know how to eat everything properly without appearing to be uncultured or completely lacking in hand-eye coordination and basic fork-usage skills.

I made the mistake of assuming that a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana would be an appropriate first course – after all, everybody else was ordering pasta dishes – but I had failed to consider something critical: The ease with which it can be eaten while simultaneously trying to converse in two different languages. To begin with, tomato sauce is a lethal weapon in the hands of a non-expert. If it’s not staining clothes, it’s probably flecking the white tablecloth, colourfully announcing the presence of a beginner. And then there’s the issue of noodle twirl-ability: Spaghettini might be doable, spaghetti poses some serious challenges, and bucatini… Well, bucatini is nearly impossible, at least for someone who hasn’t grown up twirling noodles on a near-daily basis. The thick, stiff strands of pasta will stubbornly refuse of curl around the fork, unwrapping themselves from the tines and sliding messily back down onto the plate just before reaching the mouth, landing in a little pile of defeat and flicking sauce everywhere in the process while the conversation comes grinding to a halt. Spoons (a beginner’s tool, apparently) will be proffered and lessons in pasta twirling will be offered up, but by that point my face has turned as red as the tomato sauce on the plate in front of me. It’s too late. Just like the kisses – something so effortless for the Italians – a simple plate of pasta has turned into a demonstration of tiny cultural contrasts.

As far as I can tell, there are only two solutions to this issue. The first involves hiding in the apartment under strict isolation, which is the only failsafe guarantee against cultural blunders. The other involves putting on dark-coloured clothes and then ordering the challenging pasta, laughing over misunderstandings in a conversation even as you feel the blush creeping up your cheeks, and kissing prolifically – kissing hello, kissing goodbye – until you’ve exchanged so many baci that you begin to understand that elusive unwritten code of kissing conduct.

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Comments on this post

J /*sparklingly 21 January 2013 at 8:19 pm

The latter sounds infinitely more enjoyable and festive…especially if you up the ante with some bright red lipstick to go with your dark ensemble :).

I remember trying to get it straight when I first started spending time in Italy. The cheek kissing order is the opposite of what we do in New York, which made for a lot of squashed noses!

Randy 22 January 2013 at 6:49 am

What a fantastic evening!

Erin/babesinthriftland 22 January 2013 at 10:17 am

I totally know how this goes. I lived for a while in Scotland and even though they speak English, the culture is so different. I can’t even imagine how much harder it is in another language. Don’t tell your British friends that you want to go change your pants…

carol sansone 31 January 2013 at 11:56 am

Bucatini……..hate it for that very reason…..totally un-twirlable!!!

melissa 6 February 2013 at 4:50 pm

I laugh a lot with your story and remind me of my many cultural shocks I have also experoiexperience. Form the excitement to the rto the red cheek blossom and confusion,what are they saying kind of thought? But it is all worth , isnt it? Cheers to italy and traveling.. Keep on writing

Jamie Varon 7 February 2013 at 9:07 am

OH MY GOD. The kissing! I remember a few times in Rome I went in for a friendly baci with men I had just met and found myself with a kiss on the lips.

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