La Buona Educazione: Good Manners in Italy

Italy has four or five of those freebie newspapers, you probably have them in your city as well. The one I read regularly is Metro, partly because it’s the best of a bad lot, partly because it’s the only one distributed at the Lecco railway station. It’s not serious news, just enough to keep up on showbiz silliness (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will get married on Lake Como next week – wait, no, they didn’t), and the letters page is a glimpse into what’s on the collective Italian mind.

Every now and then they publish a flurry of letters about manners, usually started by a woman complaining that no one, and especially no man, ever offers her a seat on the bus or subway – even when she’s visibly pregnant. Other women chime in with similar experiences, then the men recount how no one ever gave them a seat, even when they were on crutches, or how some women are snappishly offended to be classified as old enough to need such courtesies.

How well I remember traversing the city every day to daycare, standing with a heavy two-year-old Rossella in my arms because, if I put her down, she was likely to get stepped on or bashed in the head with someone’s heavy bag.

Once she asked, in a loud, clear voice: “Why won’t anyone let us sit down?” (This was during the phase when she only spoke Italian, so everyone understood it.)

“Because,” I answered equally loudly, and in Italian, “no one is civil enough to notice that there’s a mother here with a child in her arms who needs to sit down.”

That finally got us a seat.

During my recent visit to Texas, I was startled that men kept leaping ahead to open doors for me. This reminded me of a fellow Woodstocker who had attended the University of Texas at the same time I did. He was Bangladeshi, and had some cultural adjustment difficulties. He said to me mournfully: “I never know what to do at a door. If I don’t open a door for a girl, she gives me a dirty look. If I do, she calls me a chauvinist pig.” (I told him that he should do what was right for him, and if someone called him a pig for his good manners, she was seriously lacking in manners herself.)

The nagging problem on trains is many passengers’ failure to close the compartment doors. On a typical commuter train, each carriage divided into three sections, with two entry platforms, plus doors on each end into the next carriage. The entry platforms are not heated, so in winter it’s important to close the doors between the compartments and the entryways. (They should theoretically close by themselves, but the trains are so old that they often need a push.)

But lots of people go charging through the train, leaving a string of open doors behind them, and other passengers shouting irately after them: “Ehi! Porta!” (“Hey! Door!”) – usually ignored, because someone who is rude in the first place is rarely going to acknowledge the fact and correct his error.

I habitually sit near the door, so am often the one to get up and close it. A few times I have commented to a nearby passenger: “Tutti nati in stalla,” from the American: “Were you born in a barn?” This phrase isn’t used in Italy, so Italians find it very funny; Ross’ boyfriend doubled up laughing the first time he heard it.

One thought on “La Buona Educazione: Good Manners in Italy”

  1. Once I was coming out of a physical therapy center in a city 25km northeast of Napoli. Four teens (14ish) were sitting on the stairs (2 girls, 2 boys). As I stepped toward them, I said “Excuse me”, the two girls stood up, and one the boys retracted his extended leg. There is one boy who looked like a little jerk looked at me and did not move an inch. He continue to block the entire width of the stair with his extended leg. I stopped and looked at him and said “Mi Scusi”, his friend pushed him a bit to tell him to move his leg. He didn’t, so I stepped over him. Since I don’t speak much Italian, it wasn’t useful for me to say anything. For a moment, I thought about kicking his head against the wall or throw him off to the floor. However, I did not do anything to harm him. I just walked away and called the security later. Kids today have fewer respect than those in my early ’80s generation.

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