by Aimee Elber
During my teenage years, I left my hometown of Richland, Washington and attended high school across the state in Vancouver, Washington. As I packed and prepared to leave, my father shared a quote by William Arthur Ward, reminding me that navigating unfamiliar spaces and meeting new friends could be quite simple and easy. He said, “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” I held this value with me well into adulthood, using it frequently over the years. That is, until I arrived in Italy.
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As I stepped off the plane in Florence after roughly 14 hours of travel, my exhaustion dissolved as I felt excitement, adventure, and enthusiasm bubble up inside. I had finally made it to Italy! I could hardly contain myself. I felt as though I were bursting with joy. This feeling stayed with me for the better part of a week. I found myself marveling at my journey, and overwhelmingly elated to be exploring a city I had only dreamed of visiting since childhood. A perpetual smile imprinted my face.
After dinner with a classmate on my first full day in Florence, I contentedly walked back to my apartment with a full belly of pasta and a slight breeze blowing through my hair. The time was nearly 11pm, but the streets were bustling with activity. I felt happy, and smiled at everyone passing by on the street. Some people held my gaze for a few seconds, as if searching for something. Others looked away quickly. Very few smiled back. One young man caught my grin and chose to follow me for 7 blocks on his bicycle, attempting to chat. Speaking in broken English, we engaged in small talk until he eventually asked if I would take him home and sleep with him. I declined, quickened my pace, found a policeman on the street, and asked how I might call a taxi to get home.
Upon arriving in Cagli, I continued to feel elation and delight. Unable to contain myself, I smiled at everyone and everything. I soon discovered this is not always acceptable. As an amateur in international travel and a newbie to Italy, I was forced to quickly learn the rules of the game. Here are the rules I have learned so far:
- It’s okay to smile at babies. Babies are fair game. However, always ask permission, “Posso?” (May I?) before taking a snapshot. Also, do not touch a baby without clear permission from its parents. Occasionally a baby will smile at you first. Sometimes they’ll play hide-and-seek. They may also blow aerated bubbles of spit, pass gas, or scrunch up their tiny fists and try to eat their own hand. Do not be alarmed. This behavior is normal, and from what I can tell in my limited understanding of babies in general, universal across cultures. Occasionally, a baby may become quite upset and red in the face if you cease to engage. Don’t panic. Continue to make faces at the baby, speak to it in any language you wish, telling the baby it is a beautiful, chubby, intelligent, and angelic ball of joy. Smile and coo at it until you have a clear escape, then run and hope you don’t make it upset. For the most part, if a baby is in a good mood and you smile at it, it will smile back at you. Sometimes it will stare, but this doesn’t have anything to do with cultural differences so much as innocent curiosity and/or hope that you might feed or play with it.
- Pets are a bridge to communication and allow us to bend the rules of the game. It is acceptable to smile and talk to a dog, for example, then ask, “Chiama?” (Name?) while smiling up at its owner. This is a stealthy but surefire way to engage with someone who may not otherwise be open to interaction. Just get in there, grin at the dog, pet it, then quickly look up and smile at its owner. They won’t even know what’s coming and probably won’t have any choice but to smile back at you.
- Most Cagliese working in customer service expect you to smile. They may not be comfortable with it, but they will let you do it because they know it is your own default comfort mode. Most of them will smile when you come into their store, or as they give you change, or while you are struggling to order a meal in broken Italian. One exception is a curmudgeonly woman working at a local gelateria, who will stare at you blankly whether you order gelato from her counter, pay for a bottle of water, or offer a friendly “Buongiorno!”.
- Generally speaking, the older the individual, the less likely they will return your smile with one of their own. This is not an indication they they are unfriendly, bad-tempered, or guarded. It merely means they don’t know you. This is most difficult for me to accept and understand. In my culture, it is acceptable and encouraged to smile at elderly people and may even be interpreted as a sign of respect. Here, it seems suspicious to receive a smile from someone you’ve never met before, regardless of status, but especially if there is a wider age gap.
What I have come to learn aligns with a model Dr. Caputo taught recently in class about cultural mismatch. When interacting with others outside of my culture, I need to consider not only aspects of culture, but also language, idiosyncrasies, and non-verbal communication. A family with a small child walking in broad daylight is much different than an elderly woman walking alone down a dark alley in the evening. Now, when I approach a person on the streets of Cagli, I try to read the situation before offering a friendly smile. There have been moments where I catch myself and consciously choose not to smile at a person, despite the urge to do so. In some cases, I simply avert my eyes and avoid contact altogether if I’m unsure. It has been a hard lesson in cultural dissonance, but one that I have come to appreciate during my time in Cagli.