What does it mean to be furbo?
Inspired by some recent encounters with dishonest business practices in Italy, my COSÌ collaborators and I have decided to address the awkward topic of being scammed or cheated in Italy. Of course, these offenses happen everywhere, but like so many things in Italy, the subtleties are easily lost on non-Italians. Only experience can give you real insight into the specific cultural nuances.
We are certainly not the first foreigners to make the observation that, “Italy is a country with a million laws, but no rules.” Indeed, any expat who has lived here for any period of time could (sort of) explain this to you. But in nutshell, it means that laws are viewed as mere “suggestions,” and they should be analyzed on a case by case basis before deciding how (or if) to apply them. This attitude provides fertile ground for people who are “furbo” to exploit the systems. So then, what precisely does it mean to be “furbo?” Glad you asked!
First of all, it goes beyond a loose interpretation of the traffic laws or the tax code. “Furbizia” (sneakiness) is often applauded as an enviable trait in nearly any situation. Individuals are praised for discovering and exploiting loopholes. Or better still, the motto is, “It’s only illegal if you get caught.” Even then, a good furbacchione is equally skilled at explaining his (mis)deeds, once revealed, so that they appear to be virtuous rather than dishonest.
Being “furbo” means preferring tricks and unfair shortcuts when charged with a laborious task. Nothing uniquely Italian about that. But here’s the main difference that separates the Italian version of this behavior from sneakiness in other cultures: the “furbo” is proud of his actions, whereas in other countries, people do their best to conceal dishonest acts. What’s more, the furbo looks down upon folks who do actually things the proper (legal) way, chastising them for being naïve and stupid.
More puzzling still is that these types of characters are often celebrated by other people around them as being smart and clever; someone who knows how to circumvent “nuisances” and “obstacles;” in other words, “laws.” The rest of us are categorized as saps or dullards.
Therefore it’s important to understand that in Italy, being furbo has both positive and negative connotations. In fact, some people might define this trait as sly/sneaky (negative), while others would call it clever/astute (positive). It can also depend on the situation, of course. More on this subtle distinction later…
“Diving” isn’t just a water sport
Even in calcio (soccer) there is a certain pride in bending the rules with things like “diving” in order to draw a penalty from your opponent. It is considered an integral part of the game in Italian soccer, and not frowned upon as it is in other countries.
In an article on CNN’s website, one calciatore who has played professional soccer in both Italy and England even wrote a book on the subject, called “The Italian Job.” In his book, the former Chelsea striker Gianluca Vialli enlists the words of none other than Machiavelli to clarify this phenomenon.
“Machiavelli would have applauded a successful dive to win a penalty if it is decisive and the player gets away with it. He would also have pointed out, however, that diving to win a penalty is something to be done rarely but with full conviction.”
Politics as usual
While soccer provides a nicely packaged clear example, to really witness the height of what can be accomplished by fubizia, we must look at the political stage. And at the forefront of this stage stands the clown/entrepreneur/politician, Silvio Berlusconi. Not only has his furbizia gained him the highest office in the country, Prime Minister, but also two encores! Incredibile, amici!
His creativity in bending the rules is impressive. He’s done it all, from changing existing laws to retroactively legalize past acts of criminal behavior, to appointing his mistresses to the cabinet. He even managed to have commercial air traffic rerouted in Milan because the planes would have been too noisy for a development he was planning.
You might think that Berlusconi has really achieved some great things with his way of the furbo. And you’d be quite right. But he had an excellent teacher who showed him what could be accomplished if you’re able to disconnect entirely from accountability and reason. Of course I’m referring to the late Bettino Craxi.
I won’t recount the long, painful account of Craxi’s sins against his Patria, but suffice to say that he redefined the scale on which furbizia can be practiced for personal gain. He bilked billions of tax dollars from the public coffers, and then when caught red-handed, claimed that he had done nothing wrong. He justified his actions by saying that “everybody else is doing it, too,” and that “corruption is a necessity of a democracy.” Meanwhile, he and his court of “midgets and dancers” enjoyed a lavish lifestyle that was visibly way above what they should have been able to afford on their official salaries.
And yet Craxi never apologized. Instead he escaped to Tunisia with his billions of ill-gotten lire, and accepted the protection of his friend and dictator Ben Ali. Worth noting is that Tunisia is a country that has no extradition agreement with Italy. There he died in the year 2,000, furbo to the bitter end.
What does it mean to be furbo?
For my personal experience, I’ve been the fesso—the naïve victim of a furbo—more than once. Of course, there are the usual rip-offs, like the time a Palermo taxi driver charged me 20 Euros to go 10 blocks. Then there was the instance when I bought a kilo of porchetta at the butcher shop, only to get the package home and find that 50% of the weight was comprised of the intact snout of the filthy animal. (Fortunately, my Sicilian sister-in-law was on hand to march back to the store and literally throw the slimy organ in the butcher’s face.)
These are the daily annoying encounters with this attitude, but on a grander scale the consequences have serious ill-effects on the economy and the social environment. Everybody thinks only of him/herself first without giving a moment’s thought to the greater good.
Avoiding taxes means that the government will need to increase the tax rate the next time around to make up for the shortage. This starts a vicious cycle of more people evading taxes because they’ve become too financially burdensome, and then this leads to the next increase in taxes. So on and so forth.
The culture of the furbo is gateway to criminality, whether it’s small infractions, or something more nefarious like the Mafia. In this environment, other people don’t even denounce crimes for fear of retaliation.
But even in lesser situations, the same attitude is common; not so much out of fear, but just because the average person feels obliged to mind their own business so that nobody can complain about them, or call them a rat.
OK, perhaps I’ve focused too much on the negative interpretation of being “furbo.” As I said, there are positive sides to it. For one thing, if I had carefully watched the taxi’s meter and then threatened to report him, the driver likely would have backpedaled—and maybe even waived the fare completely to keep me quiet. In that (imaginary) scenario, I would have been the furbo one (in a good way) for being more clever than him. And I would have been praised for it, too.
I should also mention that the younger generations are finally seeing things from a different perspective. They are much less tolerant of this attitude, and have even formed organization such as AddioPizzo in Sicily (saying “NO!” to paying the pizzo, “protection money,” and renouncing the culture of omertá, the Sicilian code of silence, of not speaking up to denounce Mafiosi.)
But if we really want a clearer answer about what it means to be furbo, let’s ask a few Italians who are better acquainted with this pervasive cultural trait than me.
“The sly one (furbo) is always in a place that he has not earned for his skills, but rather for his ability to pretend to have them.”
Giuseppe Prezzolini, The Code of Italian Life, 1921
“That cunning (furbizia) is a subservient characteristic, and never an elegant one, is the only fundamental political discovery that millions of Italians have yet to realize.
Michele Serra, La Repubblica, 2006
“It is the archetype of the Italian who knows how to “get by.” It is the pride of cunning (furbizia) unpunished, and it is still with us today. Sometimes he calls himself an alderman, or becomes the director of something or another. He almost always carries his suit jacket and drives a nice car. He changes the region where he lives, his work, his political party; but he does not change his habits. It’s fascinating and tragic, like many Italian masks.”
Beppe Severgnini, La testa degli italiani, 2005
And you also can check out what my COSI friends have to say about living in country full of furbi.
Surviving in Italy: The Italian Art of Being Sly
The Unwilling Expat: Italy’s Cheating Heart
An Englishman in Italy: Furbizia
Girl in Florence: Why Being Furbo in Italy is Anything but Cool
Sex, Lies, & Nutella: Tourists Beware: Fighting Furbizia in Italy
Married to Italy: Furbizia – blessing or burden?
The Florence Diaries: A Life Lesson in Con-Artistry