July 3


What does it mean to be furbo?

By Rick

July 3, 2015

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

Uh… doesn’t another player have to actually touch you to cause a foul?

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!

90-gradiHis 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.)

"The Cardsharps" by Caravaggio
“The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio

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.

addiopizzoI 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 the “art” of being furbo.

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

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About the author

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

  • Hi Rick,

    It’s funny because I’m reading these blogosphere articles about “furbo” and encounter yours and think, “I know him!” I actually know him, like he’s not just a virtual person I’ve never met. LOL.

    Anyway…..this is a great article. I enjoy your writing style. I see “furbo” often in the US in how suspicious Italian expatriates are of people. What you talk about here is so ingrained in their collective psyche that they’re on guard to be taken advantage of and seem honestly surprised when someone is genuine.

    Also, all these posts I’ve read made me recall one of my favorite films, “Breaking Away.” Have you seen it? The college-aged American male lead is enamored with the Italian cycling team. He teaches himself Italian, adorns his bedroom with posters of Italians, even pretends to be Italian to snag a beautiful coed.

    Italians are his HEROS! Until he actually encounters them and this happens…..https://youtu.be/VTZ0N7VTDtY?list=LLqYyBBhL8gWMePskxc9Vd-A

    It’s very funny and relates to “furbo.”

    Hope to see you on the SoFla Italian circuit soon,
    Jenifer Mangione Vogt

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for stopping by!! Yes, I have seen the movie, but had forgotten that scene…GREAT example! And you’re right, too, about regarding someone’s genuine kindness as suspicious, I’ve also encountered that. And finally, YES, hope to see you soon at one of your group’s events! a presto, Rick

  • Great topic. I just returned to Canada from Italy after a 4 week vacation. First time for my three early teen kids. As expected, the culture difference was the eye opener I was hoping they would get. I’ve always felt the concept of a line up was a good every-day example of what ‘furbo’ is. I’m Canadian, when we go to do something, if there is a line, you get in line and wait your turn. Waiting in line for anything in Rome simply doesn’t happen. Standing by and letting people get in front if you is considered ‘fesso’ (foolish). At the market, the pizzeria, the bar etc, etc, you push to the front wave your money and make eye contact and to he!! with the people you’ve cut in front of. You often hear – Che me ne frega (what do I care who I screw over)) in those situations which to me is the saddest part. On the one hand Italian people are some of the most caring and genuine people I’ve met in my travels, and on the other hand they’ve created a culture for themselves of not caring. I think after years of corruption and unstable political environments many people are just resigned to, at least on the surface, look out for number one and not care too much about the rest. At one time i thought it was just about being a bit more street smart than other cultures, but I’ve traveled in some out of the way places in Italy where the same attitude exists and see it as well in many of the relatives I have there.

    • Great observations, and yes, it’s a little difficult to reconcile the warm, caring side of the Italian character (if we can generalize so broadly) with the furbo mentality. I guess we could say that on a personal level, Italians are warm and caring, but on a social level “sono menefreghiste!”

  • Well… furbi are everywhere everytime and good honest people ever has an eye of hate and an eye of sympathy for them.
    I write from the country where Gatto and Volpe cheated Pinocchio… You from country of Duke and Dauphin… 🙂

  • Great article as usual Rick. I can think of a few times when I’ve had small things happen, like the taxi overcharging, or being charged 10 euro to sit at a table for 5 minutes to drink a coffee. No where in that cafe did it say 10 euro to sit down. I know it’s common to be charged for that but it also usually says so somewhere.
    I also think well the US is weird with the gun thing, as you mentioned. And I live in Texas where the current state governor is remarkably familiar to Berlusconi. In fact, I may grab what you wrote about Berlusconi and post it on my FB wall and say, Doesn’t this sound a lot like GREG ABBOTT! Ugh.
    I’m not sure but honestly I don’t think the USA is that different. But I’ve not lived in Italy yet.

    • Yeah, I know what you mean, Penny. But I think the difference is that in the USA, people are ashamed of these types of behaviors and do their best to conceal them. While in Italy, most furbi take pride in their actions, and even gain praise from others rather than scorn.

      • Actually when it comes to the governor of Texas I’d say the difference is he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong at all and isn’t trying to conceal it!

      • I also think the difference is in the US, people don’t think about screwing over a peer for petty gain either. It isn’t just finance or politicians in Italy….it’s a cultural mindset to think of ways to cheat , even the ‘little guys’. But like Rick commented it seems maybe young people are changing and getting over this. I also think the “dietrologia” (thinking there’s an ulterior motive for everyone’s actions. “You think I’m as stupid as you? I know Giovanni wasn’t REALLY only having a coffee in the bar this morning…”) is a huge partvof furbizia and also lessening.

  • Great explanation, Rick – although it’s safer to say this concept is such a nuanced part of our heritage that it is not only hard to explain but also accept. Without defending its negative aspects (and there are many), I believe this behavior was born out of necessity, and even a tad of that Italian ingenuity, after generations of being faced with trying and unfair circumstances that called for alternative solutions.

    • True. And that’s the positive side of “arrangiarsi” or being “furbo.” Italians know how to survive–indeed, thrive–under challenging conditions. I admire that quality when it’s for a good reason and not just petty gain.

  • Having read many books about Italian culture…came across discussions of furbo (she pulls down her lower eye lid with finger)…can be funny in some cases but if your the one getting “furboed”…then not so much. I particularly liked the story Ferenc Mate wrote of about his neighbour dressing in rags to avoid paying more taxes! The longer you live there…it might just rub off on you a bit! Great post!

    • Ha, ha! Thanks Phyllis! Yeah, sometimes it can be almost comical. But here’s to hoping that it won’t rub off too much…. cheers!

  • Really interesting article, Rick! I’m always careful but I’ll be sure to pay special attention to everything next time I’m in Italy.
    It’s great to read that the attitude is changing among young people.

    Here in the states I feel corruption is getting worse at every level- look at campaign financing now, it’s pretty much unlimited. Some business don’t even offer a receipt and I noticed they tacked on just a little extra. Even at Whole Foods they ask if you want a receipt and I always take it and double check. They have a policy where if the item is priced wrong you get it for free. But I have had to specifically tell certain employees their policy because they are instructed to try and weazel out if they can. I always feel good when I get a free item as I feel I won the game, lol.

    In Greece it’s law to give a receipt, due to the similar game you’ve eloquently written about.

    • Well, the receipt is the law in Italy, too, but…

      As far as the US, I 100% agree with you on the campaign finance issue. The thing is, most of what’s done is “legal” by the letter of the law, which in a way is even more sad.

      Whole Foods? Don’t get me started. I do like their products and the environment that they provide, but everything is literally 2X more expensive! If it were 25% more or even 50% more, OK, maybe. But WTF?

  • I love your line “The culture of the furbo is gateway to criminality, whether it’s small infractions, or something more nefarious…” I believe in the Broken Windows Theory: if Rome enforced infractions of say, parking laws, it could lead to improved traffic and pedestrian flow and give way to a more livable city. By enforcing the tax code, there could be lower taxes and better service (healthcare, schools) for everyone. But as you said, it’s not about doing something for the greater good. It is narcissism at its worst. I love it here, but I am grateful I do not have children to raise nor do I have to deal with the world of employment.

    • Honestly, like you mentioned, having a child now really makes me think twice about having her grow up surrounded by that mentality. Then again, in the US everyone is walking around with guns–not sure I want her around THAT mentality, either. I guess it’s a matter of perspective.

      • Hmm, good point on the guns thing. I am embarrassed for America on that front! But oh-so-pleased with SCOTUS last week and the progress made on other fronts. Maybe President Obama will leave a legacy of gun control, too! Your daughter will have choices: bilingual and dual citizenship should set her up for a good future.

    • Hi Rick, I think Good Day Rome has it in a nut shell, if the country enforced the laws,I think people would start to obey them. For years nobody worm motorbike helmets in Sicily until the police cracked down on them. We know the Italians can obey laws…… because they drive pretty good when they cross the border into Germany and it is amazing how many Swiss and German drivers suddenly adapt Italian driving habits when they enter Belle Italia.

      Well one would hope.

      • Right. But the problem is that the people charged with enforcing the laws are the most furbo of all! But you’re correct… for example, I never thought that Italians would heed the no smoking bans in public spaces 10+ years ago, and yet it was a pretty easy transition. II guess one has to choose your battles.

  • What disappoints me to no end is seeing people really not care about actual economics or future consequences all in the name of cheating someone. For example, maybe a year or so ago a woman told me about what she heard on the radio….the DJ’s were evidently talking about bringing similar drink glasses used by various aperi-cena bars and simply eating without paying. My jaw probably hit the ground when this seemingly ‘in gamba’ woman told me she already found 2 glasses similar to places in the centro of Florence and planned to do just that. I told her she may as well try on a dress in a store and just “walk out”, and then the prices are raised for everyone! Good times! She scolded me, saying I was a typical “American out for justice” and that there was nothing wrong with eating for free in these “bars that charge too much anyway.” Mah.

    • That is a PERFECT example of a “furbo” act and the attitude which accompanies (defends) it! Thanks so much for sharing that!!!

      • No problem. THANK YOU for posting this topic. Unfortunately if I really sat down to think, I could probably list countless episodes…..and yes, I have also been the victim of furbizia.

    • Wonderful post Rick, you have such a way of explaining these things that I really enjoy reading, in fact I read it twice and will show Nico when he gets home from work. What really gets to me are all of the small, little acts, a bit like what Bellavia was saying regarding the glasses. I have heard so many ‘friends’ talk about doing similar acts and I am disgusted that people would actually brag about that? That could be the store of their father, sister, cousin or friend and then I am sure they would be singing a different tune. Everyone participates in this widespread culture of furbizia with each small, crooked deal…

  • Hi Rick,
    I really appreciated your explanation of this quality. It’s alive and flourishing here in the US, also; maybe just not as widely practiced or named. My daughter-in-law (not Italian in the least) is a master at getting the best deal (legally, I should add) on anything she buys – by negotiation or coupons or advertised discounts or whatever she can find. I find myself embarrassed that I’m not always aware of these breaks. My husband currently is doing electrical work for an Italian – so we will be alert to this practice.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone were to have the honest heart that you have?

    • Hmmm… well it’s the subtleties that are lost in translation. I don’t think using coupons or getting the best deal in a transparent way is really being furbo. Furbizia implies some degree of sneakiness or something that circumvents the rules.

      As for my own heart, I make no claims either way. 🙂

  • Rick, to really find out the full meaning of “”furbo”” “”furbi”” just ask the POLITICOS in ITALY.

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