“Ugly American” students in Italy

Warning: Incoming rant!

This morning I spent two hours waiting in the Italian Immigration building to have my number called so that I could be fingerprinted for my Permit of Stay. No, I’m not going to rant about this process of red tape similar to going to the DMV. But, I am going to share some thoughts about the “Ugly Americanism” that I see too much of in Italy–the blatant insensitivity and even disrespect towards the Italian culture that is too-often demonstrated by American students here. Remember–as sitting in the Questura this morning reminded me–we are foreigners here, and foreigners who have been here for enough months to understand respectful etiquette and behavior. There is no excuse for the blatant obliviousness, obnoxiousness, insensitivity and lack of effort to respect Italian culture that portrays you as an “Ugly American” student.

Stop expecting Italians to speak English. If someone walked into a shop in America and asked for something in a language other than English, the shopkeeper would be annoyed and look at that person like he or she is crazy. Believe it or not, this concept works in other countries too! If you are in a country which speaks Italian, then you should expect that the people speak Italian. After months of taking an Italian course [and living in Italy], you should at least know how to say the simple phrases that you need in order to get by…and you should actually use them. It blows my mind when American students capable of saying something simple like “Buon giorno. Posso avere il panino con mozzarella e pomodori, per favore?” will instead ask “Hi, can I have [points to desired sandwich].” Some students will even get frustrated and annoyed with the shop keeper if he/she reacts in a confused manner. You’re in a different country that speaks a different language: why the hell would you just expect them to gracefully receive your speaking in English? Just TRY to speak the Italian you know!–A failed effort at Italian is much better received than an ignorant assumption of English. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to say what you need to say in Italian, then you should first ask if the other person speaks English. “Parla inglese?” is all–hell, even just “English?” can communicate that question. Stop walking up to a front desk and immediately speak in English without any respect for the possibility that the Italian you are speaking to in Italy might only speak Italian and therefore not understand you.

Stop getting frustrated with people for cultural differences. Once again, you are in a different country, so some things will probably be different. No one can make you stop being frustrated with adjustments you can’t handle, but you need to stop attributing your own culturally-conjured “faults” towards the people from another culture. That barista is not a horrible employee for not serving you coffee in a to-go cup: to-go cups for coffee are not the norm here. That waitress is not giving you bad service for not bringing your bill yet: the norm is to not rush your dinner, and to wait for the customer to ask for the bill. Stop evaluating people based on your own cultural norms.

Don’t parade effusive American patriotism. The other night, a bunch of students threw an “America Party” at an Italian bar I was at. They piled in with their red, white and blue and exerted their American pride, even with Italians in the same place. Another night, someone kept hollering an obnoxious “TO AMERICA!” at dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant. Stop making us all look like arrogant assholes, please…


6 comments on ““Ugly American” students in Italy

  1. Mom says:

    It takes a very sensitive and thoughtful person to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others. When you hear people speak of the “entitlement” generation, what you described in your rant is EXACTLY what they are referring to. It’s not just a feeling of being entitled to THINGS. It’s the expectation that the world revolves around you in every possible way.

    I’m glad to see that you are not one of the “entitled” and you are able to see yourself through the eyes of other people. It must be very frustrating to see this kind of blatant disregard for Italian culture from students who have lived there long enough to know better. 😦

    • Liz J says:

      Yeah, it is. And I feel obnoxious for ranting about it, but I just can’t stand repeatedly seeing such blatant disregard when they should know better by this point….It’s embarrassing to be associated with it, and it makes me feel bad for the people who have to deal with it all the time.

  2. jonolan says:

    I have little or no use for other cultures – something brought on by too much international travel – especially those of Europe, but you’re dead on target with your “rant.” The foreigner must adapt to the host nation’s culture and language, not ever the other way around.

  3. Nana says:

    Elizabeth, I am so proud of you. Those students that act the way they do will wake up some day and realize how stupid and immature they were. I hope they all read your blog & learn a lesson that makes them a better person in the future. It’s really sad. 😦

  4. have been worked 13 years with american students in florence, this helped me to learn you americans and your culture… the way you describe things is very interesting, lot of american students are not able to be really cosmopolitan… but i think it is not a really conscious thing.. they just behave that way coz they are so young and they are used to live in a country where the main stream is one and strong… they are not used to think so much to these problems… but I’m positive that more and more students will open their views in the future, thanks to your and other students blogs and opinions… also I noticed that not all the students have the same attitude, some of them are very responsable and mature, pay much attention to live a real new and deep experience inside the italian culture during their stay… others just live here but keep a strong american lifestyle… I think we got to respect other views and opnions so I am always open to everyone ideas and point of view… I LIKE YOUR BLOG congrats!
    if you don’t mind trying reading some italian come visit my website: http://www.vivanotte.it

    “peace & love” – christian

    • Liz J says:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I’m glad that this has helped you to understand a little, and to see that we’re not all the same 🙂

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