Freakonomics Italian Style

By Rick

July 18, 2014

The topic selected by our group of bloggers this week was: “Weird questions sent to you by bat-shit crazy readers.”  Potentially good stuff, but I must say, at first I wasn’t totally thrilled by the choice.

Why?  To remind everyone, until recently, I was the only male in the bunch, and the oldest by at least 20 years.  So I don’t get the juicy inquires about “hooking up with an Italian” or “the late-night club scene” or even awkward questions about the practice of non-circumcision in Italy.  No, unfortunately I get pummeled day after day after day with the boring and mundane, like: “How do I obtain an Elective Residency Visa?” or “How do I find an English teaching job in Rome?” or “How do I change the transmission fluid in my 1983 FIAT Panda?”  This last one is particularly vexing, since I don’t even own a car in Italy.

Then not long ago, I received another such email, which at first glance struck me as equally dull, not to mention vague.  The reader wrote, “Rick, last month I re-visited Italy for the first time in over ten years.  Not that I was disappointed, exactly—we had a lovely vacation.  But I don’t know, something seemed ‘different’ to me.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if you’ll allow me to say it, Italy felt less ‘Italian’ then what I remember from previous visits during the 80s and 90s.  What do you think it is?”

Vague, yes.  But after some moments of contemplation, I decided that perhaps he was onto something.  What precisely has changed in Italy during the last decade (or two)?  Well above all, there’s the economic crisis.  It has placed financial pressures, not to mention international scrutiny, on the country that otherwise might have been handled by some patchwork of internal jerry-rigging.  If they still had the lira, they could devalue the currency, cancel the vacations abroad, and simply wait it out.  But no, with the European Economic Community looking over their shoulder, it’s now more complicated than that.

This rumination led me to recall a popular book that I read several years ago called, Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, a distinguished professor of economics at the University of Chicago.  To sum up the content for those who haven’t read the book, basically he took his complex economic theories and used them to explain social phenomenon.  The one that gained him all the notoriety (and scorn) was his theory that suggested a direct link between legalized abortion and lower crime rates in the U.S.

freakonomics italian styleSo it was with this idea in mind that I decided to reverse the equation, and look at Italy from the opposite end of the telescope.  In other words, I wanted to identify some social phenomena that might help explain the economic situation.  Let’s call it Freakonomics Italian Style.

Submitted for your consideration is my silly theory, in three parts, for measuring how much “Italian-ness” remains in Italy, and what effect it might have on the economy.  Any foreigner who has lived in Italy, or who has visited Italy repeatedly over the last two decades, has likely noticed a certain degree of “globalization” (for lack of a better word) which has diluted some of its charms.  Everything from food choices, to tastes in music, to fashion sense, to religious practices.  No question about it, Italy is changing.  But how much of this change is for the better?  And how many opportunities for positive change are being ignored in favor of the status quo?

The Coffee Bar

While in Milan last month, we stopped at a place called Arnold Coffee just a few steps from the city’s impressive Duomo.  This joint makes no attempt to disguise their intentions to copy the Starbucks formula.  American coffee in big pots, free Wifi with any purchase, Hip-Hop music playing just a bit too loud.  If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I was in Seattle.  Interestingly, their website is only in Italian, so clearly they are NOT targeting American/foreign tourists. caffe

I tried to order a coffee and the barista couldn’t have given me less attention if I were an insect.  I had interrupted her cell phone conversation, which had made me persona non grata in her bar for the morning.  I say “her” bar, but obviously she was a low-paid employee in a bar owned by a large corporation.  The key difference, however, is that Starbucks, despite bad coffee and questionable tastes in music, gives friendly, efficient service.  The Starbucks employee knows that if he/she works hard, they can be promoted to a better job within the company for better pay.  They might even get their own store one day.  Starbucks creates a pleasant atmosphere for both the customer and the employee that convinces everyone to overlook the burnt coffee that costs three times as much as a proper espresso in Milan.  (And what the F#@% was I doing there anyway?)

Meanwhile, at the traditional Italian coffee bar, I pay mamma at the cassa, give the scontrino to the figlio who makes my perfect espresso, and nod politely to papá who sits at a nearby table reading the Gazzetta dello Sport.  They all smile at me, the straniero, test out their three or four phrases of English, and do their best to make me feel welcome in their humble establishment.

So here’s the danger that I see represented by this trend.  When Arnold’s Coffee at last puts Bar della Famiglia out of business (and they will), Italians will have abandoned something that they do very well; the traditional coffee bar.  Instead, they will have embraced the worst of American culture—terrible coffee and rap music—while missing the opportunity to borrow the best of America in the form of efficient business practices and high service standards.  This recipe can only fail in long run.

Church Bells

jessica burgio in burgio, sicilyWhile travelling through Sicily this summer, we stopped one afternoon in the small village of Burgio in the province of Agrigento.  We chose to stop there for one reason only: to take a picture of my wife next to the town’s welcome sign, because her last name happens to be Burgio.  But the town is also well-known for their skilled craftsmen who make the large church bells clanging in the bell towers all over Sicily, and indeed all of Italy.

So then you can imagine my surprise when I noticed that, at one of their main churches in the center of town—I repeat, a town known for making church bells—the bell had been replaced by a giant loudspeaker.  Now, the loudspeaker plays a digital recording of a church bell, so the effort to maintain the overall effect is still there.  But it’s clearly one step in the direction of abandoning this practice entirely.  One can even envision a day when a cash-strapped local parish will use the speaker to advertise the bake sale or bingo night instead of playing the Ave Maria.

But why should this be considered important?  Well, I’m not suggesting that it is terribly important or even a bad thing if all the church bells suddenly fall silent throughout Italy (at least I’d get more sleep).  But it is telling for certain reasons.  Namely, the relationship between Italian culture and Catholicism is so intertwined that to separate them would be to completely undo Italian culture at large.  A nation-wide identity crisis might follow.

One bell tower in one church in one lost Sicilian village doesn’t necessary foreshadow disaster.  But this is something I observed all throughout Italy along the route of my blog tour this summer: fewer bells ringing, fewer people attending Mass, fewer people pretending to be religious.  As I’ve said before, even when you take away the catechism, and renounce any spiritual association to Christianity, most Italians would still see themselves as Catholic.  Or if not, watch as they celebrate the feast day of their patron saint, or grab their testicles when an empty hearse passes by to ward off “bad luck.”  It’s cultural/societal more than spiritual, according my observations.

How will this affect the economy?  OK, it might be a stretch, but in a country rife with campanilismo (who sees the exquisite irony in THAT word?), Catholicism is about the only thing (except the national soccer team) that unifies the population, creating a sense of belonging.  More individual interests are NOT what the country needs to prosper.  People need to actually care about the country as a whole, and about their fellow countrymen.  Right now, they don’t.  Older folks are desperately trying to squeeze the last bit of pension money from the state coffers, while educated youngsters are fleeing in droves for better opportunities abroad.  So who is left to earn a wage and pay the taxes to refill the coffers in the decades to come?  Certainly not the guy making church bells in Burgio.  His days are already numbered—and he probably doesn’t even attend Mass anymore, either.

The use of the courtesy form

In the Italian language, there are two forms of address the second person, “you.”  (I wrote one of my most popular posts on this subject.) If you know a person well, you use the tu form. But if there’s even the slightest doubt about the level of familiarity, then you should revert to the Lei.  “Can I help you?” from a store clerk should be, “Posso aiutarLa?” and NOT, “Posso aiutarti?”  The flagrant use of the “tu” form with a perfect stranger is the American equivalent of a GAP employee at the shopping mall asking a customer, “What the F&#% do you want?!?”

Traditionally this practice of politeness in speech is stronger in the south.  But even while travelling in Sicily, the reduced use of the Lei was noticeable.  To help you understand this better, let me give you an example of something that happened to me in Messina.  First, imagine that bitchy little barista that I met in Milan, give her a Sicilian accent, and put her to work at the Coin store on Viale San Martino in the center of Messina.  Next, imagine me, the Americano, presumably a tourist, who can be spotted from a block away, dressed in poor fitting clothes, and standing a full meter taller than your average Sicilian.  Here’s the dialogue, roughly translated for your benefit.

Me: Buongiorno.                     (Good morning)

Commessa: Ciao.                    (Hi)

Me: Mi direbbe dov’è il reparto giocattoli?    (Could YOU tell me where the toys department is?)

C.: Si, lo trovi qui dietro la cassa. (Yes, you find it behind the counter here)  She makes a pointing motion with her chin, the absolute height of rudeness in this scenario.

Me: La ringrazio.                     (Thank YOU)

A minute later, here I come back to the cash register with a bath toy.

Me: Quanto le devo?              (How much do I owe YOU?)

C.: Aspetta un momento….    (Wait a minute…)

I start feeling a little irritated by the fact that I keep using the courtesy form with this snot-nosed teenager while she keeps addressing me as if I were her high school smoking buddy.  Old age should carry come benefits, after all.  Or maybe it’s just me becoming a little too Italian.

Me: Certo, LA aspetto.           (This time really stressing the “LA” in a way that should get the youngster’s attention.  Failed attempt.)

C.: Allora, sono 9,99 euro. Hai spicci?           (So then, it’s 9.99 Euro.  Do you have exact change?)

Me: Carta di credito?              (Credit card?)

C.: Non funziona.                   (It’s not working)

I should have known better.

Me: Allora, ho solo 50 euro interi.      (OK then, I only have a 50 Euro note.)

C.: MI dispiace, allora, non ti posso aiutare.   (I’m sorry then, I can’t help you.)

As if she had helped me at all so far.  Finally, along comes my wife, loose change in hand, who does not hesitate to say:

“Ci conosciamo, signorina?  Se no, allora mi dia del LEI!”   (Do we know each other, missy?  If not, then speak to me with the LEI!)

OK, so how does this situation spell doom for the Italian economy?  For one thing, this is another example of Italy slowly steering away from its Italian charm—those polite little social graces and idiosyncrasies that we foreign tourists so admire, and which draw us back to Italy again and again.  But much more importantly, tourism is one of the few bright spots in the Italian economy, and rudeness or indifference to cash-carrying foreigners isn’t the smartest long-term strategy for growth.  Heck, France and Spain aren’t that far away and they’d love to pull some Ex-Italophiles to their countries.  I highlighted this particular problem in an earlier post about the trouble I encountered when trying to visit the Greek ruins in Agrigento.  Tourism should be nurtured, not taken for granted.  Eventually, Italy might just become “too much trouble” to bother with, and tourist dollars/pounds/yen will end up elsewhere.  I hear Greece is nice, too—and by the way, they also happen to have Greek ruins.

Other Thoughts on Freakonomics Italian Style?

There are other cultural indicators we could debate such as the Italian penchant for dressing well (this, too, is on the wane) and their passion for soccer (on the contrary, this hasn’t decreased at all).  This article has obviously been a bit tongue-in-cheek (maybe more than a bit), but I maintain that the three phenomenon that I mentioned above are pretty good signs of how much Italy is willing to adapt–or not–in order to: 1) value and preserve the many cultural treasures that are amazing and unique about Italy, and; 2) change the old mentality that is holding the country back economically.  Take note of these things next time you travel in Italy and try to recall previous visits for comparison.  Let me know what you think about them and try to come up with a few of your own.

If you’ve made it this far through my rant, you should really do yourself a favor and click over to the more practical and entertaining musings of my colleagues in expat debauchery:

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Rick,

    Although, I agree with the point you are trying to make about the globalization of Italy, I must point how Star Bucks got it’s start. You said some Italian coffee bars have followed in the footsteps of Star Bucks by Americanizing themselves, but that could not be more wrong. The Star Bucks model was actually based on a coffee bar in Milan. The owner of Star Bucks used to go to Italy and basically study the Italian coffee bar experience and wanted to bring that back to America.

    “In 1983, Howard traveled to Italy and became captivated with Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience. He had a vision to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States. A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home.”


    The only reason I wanted to point this out to you is because the Italian coffee bar experience is the best in the world, and they know it. Italians would never copy what we Americans do, especially in the coffee and culinary world. Sure, maybe some Italian teenagers prefer anything American but for the most part, Italians wouldn’t dare embracing our American coffee culture.

    • Well, I don’t know, Ben. Howard might have been “inspired” by the Italian coffee bar, but anyone has been into both a Starbucks and a genuine Italian coffee bar knows that they have almost nothing in common. Frozen Carmel Frappuccino Macchiato? What is that? I’ve never seen it at a real coffee bar. Further, Italians generally stand at the bar to drink their coffee and socialize a bit. That’s not even an option at most Starbucks. And perhaps more importantly, the coffee itself is COMPLETELY different. Ask any Italian to describe Starbucks coffee in one word and they’ll all tell you “burnt!”

      So while I share your preference for Italian coffee bars over Starbucks, I can’t agree that one is anything like the other. As to American coffee bars (Starbucks, Arnold’s et al) in Italy, I guess the market will decide. I think they’ll succeed just in the big cities for now, but as the younger generation becomes increasingly globalized, we might see them seep into the smaller towns, too.

  • Hi Rick, great post! You got the point!
    But I think that another huge contribution to the downfall of Italy is that all the smart youngs are emigrating so a large amount of people that can make the difference are no longer in this “once upon a time” beautiful country! Many friends of mine, after graduating are all gone to U.S. or U.K., because there they can find meritocracy. Lack of meritocracy, the biggest issue of Italy that is causing all those problems!
    Hoping that something will change!

  • Great reflections Rick!! My husband and I are drawn to Italy in part by our genetic code and family ties, and in part because of the culture, the food, the pace of life, the coffee!!! It breaks my heart to see what is good from the past be discarded in favor of the new and modern, whether in the U.S. or Italy or somewhere else. I have faith though, that what is good will eventually be chosen over the shoddy, poor quality, bad tasting, etc. We must, however, continue to try to educate people who are being blinded and coerced by these modern movements. I remind people all of the time that, for example, gelato, should never be poofy or brightly colored. I think most people really do want to taste, hear, experience the “real deal” but frequently they aren’t sure what that is.

    • Thanks, Bonnie! Yes, it’s disheartening…both to see some wonderful culture traits fade, AND to see Italy being left behind economically. The balance is a difficult one to find. As a consequence, as you said, it can be hard to know what the “real deal” is anymore. Ciao!

  • Spot on, Rick!
    Fortunately, Italy still has a way to catch up with most other countries in the area of poor manners and lack of respect, thankfully, but awareness of the problems and correcting them are necessary to maintain its positive tourist economy.
    By the way, Levitt and Dubner have a new book, “Think Like A Freak”, you may want to check it out.
    Continued Success,

  • Il suo blog, per me, è una splendida occasione di riflessione: a leggere quest’ultimo post ci sono rimasto un po’ male però vedo che è necessario avere qualcuno che ti dica le cose osservatore “terzo”. In questi ultimi quindici- vent’anni sono cambiate parecchie cose in Italia, non sempre in bene purtroppo, la crisi poi non fa che acuire la tensione e l’egoismo (che alla fine della fiera è un modo grossolano di difendersi e di poter portare a casa la pelle a fine giornata). Sono insegnante nella formazione professionale e mi accorgo anno per anno “a pelle” del cambiamento però non sono del tutto pessimista. Forse la percezione dei comportamenti varia a seconda delle aspettative che ci facciamo o dell’idea che abbiamo in testa su un popolo. Molti che dall’estero sognano di venire in Italia (non lei o altri blogger, lo so benissimo) ci immaginano come delle persone perennemente incantate sognare la bella vita e a viaggiare in vespa. Ahime siamo un paese fatto di gente normale che deve arrivare a fine mese come tutti gli altri con le nostre fatiche e le nostre gioie e i nostri limiti… ma nonostante tutto non ci arrendiamo e da questa crisi conica e culturale ne verremo fuori, ne sono certo!
    Grazie del suo post così realista (insieme con quelli di M.E. sono quelli che trovo più sinceri). Continui così!


  • Can we talk about gelato? I lived in Italy in the late ’80’s – early ’90’s. I went back for the first time in 20 years, couldn’t wait for a taste of gelato and…blech! It was TERRIBLE. I was dismayed to find that we actually had to hunt for the real thing. Thank goodness for Katie Parla!

    • You are VERY right about the gelato! The industrial variety seems to be the standard now, and finding the real artisinal product has become a chore. Too many advertise as such but are not. Yes, you can’t go wrong with Katie’s advice!!

  • Unfortunately I missed the good add-on to my comment above by not finishing the article before I sent you the above quotation. A bad habit I fear. So I had to “reply” again and add this final note from the same story: “Despite it being illegal for men to grab their crotches, it is not illegal for a man to pinch a woman’s bottom.” So perhaps the men are still happy. As I recall this has been a fairly Italian cultural bit.

    • I do not think that for us pinching a woman’s bottom is legal and neither a “cultural bit”….:-)))

      • Bravo Federico — I’ve never seen an Italian man pinch a woman, except in the movies — and then only when playing the part of a super cafone….

        Rick, I think you’re right — the lass in the store should have known better than to give you the tu. Stava mal educata…. On the other hand, if she was as young as you make her out to be, you could have easily dispensed with the Lei without being overly familiar. It would simply be expected.

        Perhaps the following might serve as a rule of thumb: anyone under 20 gets the tu, between 20-30 it depends on how adult they carry themselves, between 30-40 give the Lei serious consideration, and above that it’s Lei all the way. At least upon first meeting, though it may well be that within minutes you’ll just have a sense that the tu would be appropriate. In which case, “possiamo darci il tu?” would be the next question.

        Federico, what would you say — does that sound about right?

        • I can’t count how many friends from America who have come to visit me (in Florence) and have been all jazzed , expecting their butts to be pinched. “Italian men show women how hot we are.” I was sorry to explain that I have never ever seen this happen (although a grope by very old men might happen), and if any catcalling is done, it’s not usually Italian males. Everyone was so disappointed to find it was true. WTH? lol

        • Hi Peter, yes you’re right about the Lei…the conversation became a bit exaggerated in my blog post for purposes of making my point. 🙂 What I was really trying to underline was the rudeness/indifference towards tourist/customers that seems all too common. Not everywhere, of course, and in fact the entrepreneur types were very friendly and welcoming.

  • Hi,
    I did enjoy the essay and thank goodness I haven’t run into that kind of coffee place in Italy yet. (Though I must admit to a weekly stop at Starbucks in Rockford after Mass.) But in reading another “Italy” email I receive, namely “[email protected] Magzine” I came across this in an article about “Unusual Italian Laws” and couldn’t resist sending it on: “In Italy it has been a long held belief that men can ward off evil just by grabbing their crotch, however the Italian courts recently declared that men are not allowed to touch their own genitals in public.” Seems the law is interfering with “custom” too.
    I’m afraid my comment is not very serious compared to the article and some other ideas. Ah well!

    • Joan, please never worry about being “serious!” All input is welcome and contributes to the larger discussion. And in fact, I’m intrigued by the fact that they felt they needed to pass a law to curb this “custom”….must investigate…

  • Unfortunately, the kind of rudeness and lack of respect you talk about is all too commonplace these days. It’s a regular occurrence here in the U.S., and getting worse all the time, in my opinion. Customer service? Sorry, that’s gone. Sad that Italy may be losing itself in the effort to more ‘global’. As an American visiting Italy, I cringe everytime I see a McDonalds…ugh!

  • Hai ragione Rick. Il Paese non sa sfruttare le sue capacità e le sue opportunità.
    Ormai nel turismo siamo stati già superati da altri paesi….

  • As always love your posts Rick, I stand by your statement of ‘Tourism should be nurtured, not taken for granted.’ – this should be stamped on the forehead of every tourism board in Italy.. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Thanks so much, Georgette! Yes, the tourism thing really came to my attention big time this summer while playing the tourist throughout Italy myself. In this last week, I’ve got even greater perspective having traveled to Ticino (Italian part of Switzerland) and now NY where everyone from the street sweeper to the shop owner is going out of their way to make me feel welcome in their city. More to say on this, for sure. Italy has 10X more potential than any other country in the world. About time to realize it, in my opinion.

  • “To remind everyone, until recently, I was the only male in the bunch, and the oldest by at least 20 years. So I don’t get the juicy inquires about “hooking up with an Italian” or “the late-night club scene” or even awkward questions about the practice of non-circumcision in Italy.”

    Rick, that’s why we love you.

  • When Bar della Famiglia goes, so do I…. But I can live without one less conjugation. Your wife’s snappy comeback will be on the tip of my tongue, though. È una frase furbo è cosí italiana!

    On a more serious note, the influx of foreigners who demand italy behave less like Italy and more like “home” are a huge part of the cultural impact. America needed/needs to be a melting pot. (Huddled masses and all that.) Not sure that’s a good thing for Italy, especially if they abandon il campanile. The irony is too much.

    • Those are great points… and you’re right, the comparison to America’s melting pot is not the same thing, so it’s hard to say if it’s a good thing for Italy. I think the coffee bars will remain in the smaller towns for another generation or so, But if other international brands have conquered Italy, why not Starbucks or the like?

  • If it makes you feel better, Arnold in Firenze isn’t too much of a hit. Some of my Middle school students went to be “cool, like in Gossip Girl!”, but discovered they didn’t like it. Since this one is near to SMN, it snags tourists mainly, or an occasional expat who craves the Starbucks experience. I have hope that Italians will mainly reject these places in favor of their own coffee. Besides, would an Italian pay that price daily when they could pay between 0,50–1,00? Not in these times. Although, maybe in Milan, yes.

    I had to laugh at your COIN/Lei experience. I actually embrace the change. I never jived with the “distance” thing and feel (personally) Lei (or Voi, depending where you are, like Calabria) should be reserved for the elderly (or, say, people in the Questura, ahem! etc). I HATE when people my age or younger tell me “stia, stia!” as my boyfriend jokes “haha,they’re saying you’re old!” I rarely hear it used in bars, locali, shops etc. Mainly on the bus or in elevators. haha. In my first months here about 6 years ago, I “Lei’d” the gentleman at the register in Rinascente, and he chuckled and said “ma per favore, mica sono anziano!” Boh!

    I read somewhere recently that Italy was still one of the last countries to use the ‘polite’ form in general, as it’s fading fast in France and ‘usted’ is almost wiped out in Spain aside from the older generations or public officials.

    • As far as the American coffee bars, yes, so far their popularity seems to be limited to bigger cities and younger people. But sooner or later some Starbucks clone will just put too much financial pressure on mom and pop for them to survive. They’ve convinced Italians to pay 5-6 euros for a Big Mac, why not a frappuccino?
      Regarding the Lei, I sort of like it and hate to see it fading away…even if I still dont always use it perfectly myself

      • That’s a fair point about the Big Mac, but that’s “foreign food!” lol. I wouldn’t worry about the coffee tradition, though I really hope I am right!

  • Noooo! Horrible American coffee must never be allowed in Italy, the one country who taught us all what good coffee is!

  • Italy is changing, and not for the better. Unfortunately Italians are adopting the worst traits from the rest of the world. I have lately been horrified by the sloppy clothing adopted by locals. Really hope you are wrong about that coffee establishment taking over from the wonderful Italian bar culure, one of my favourite things about Italy. There has always been crappy service in Italy. There are those who seem to pride themselves in treating customers with contempt. Customer service is something I would be happy for them to take from USA.

    • I think your coffee bar in Bagni di Lucca is safe for another generation or two. Not so sure about Milan or Rome, though. Those big chains have money and afford to wait for mom and pop to go out of business.

    • Debra, it’s not like we Italians had a golden age in which everybody went around covered up in sharp-looking designer clothes from head to toe. People here have always dressed normally – just somewhat better than the others and this is why we stick out. tIe myth about us being a bunch of effete fashoinistas is, in fact, just a myth.

      And before someone brings this up, I would like to remind that the (very trite) notion of “bella figura” hasn’t got anything to do with clothes – it just refers to the way you behave.

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