I recall an amusing incident back in New York from my mid twenties. A girlfriend and I were sipping on second rate wine (Italians don’t do this either) in a friend’s downtown Manhattan apartment. The dinner party too large for the floor area to handle. We both saw a 30 something, undoubtedly single, gentlemen shoving through the crowd headed our way.
As he approached, I geared up for the two minute Hello then goodbye polite conversation etiquette. Before I knew what hit me, an awkward hand reached out for a shake while the high pitched voice belonging to the hand, or what seemed like a 12 year old girl, declared “Hi, I’m a Doctor”. My friend and I burst into laughter. The wine in my mouth seconds before was now splattered in front of his shoes. I apologized. We walked away in a hysterical fit barely able to stand for the next five minutes.
Where were his normal Hello or How do you know the host niceties? And why did he think announcing his occupation [read declaration of income] superseded the need to learn basic social skills?
Italians Don’t Do This in Social Settings
So…How many times have you met someone at a social gathering where one of the first questions is “What do you do”? or “Where do you work”? Is it an ice breaker or does the person asking have an ulterior motive? It’s not just at parties. It happens everywhere, a soccer match or even while traveling. This is a cultural norm for Americans.
Read First Impressions of Moving to Italy
But guess what, Italians don’t do this. Since moving here, I’ve noticed Italians will never ask you what you do for a living at a gathering upon a first meeting or even a second or third. If so, they’ve probably spent a lot of time abroad.
And no one’s sitting around the table complaining about work.
Italians Don’t Do This because….
Italians are too busy enjoying good laughs and an incredible primi piati (first course). Work doesn’t identify them as individuals so no need declare their occupations for validation from total strangers. You’re most likely to be asked about the last music concert you went to, the food you tasted at a sagra (festival) the weekend before, how many kilometers you biked yesterday morning or where you traveled to last.
If you think about it, it’s like saying “I don’t care how much money you make, I just care that you’re interesting to talk to.” It’s a meritocracy in a way. How awesome.
The vibe at an Italian gathering is fun and relaxing. There are guests from all different walks of life. One person may be an artist, the other a surgeon, another a barista, one is writing their dissertation, one is in a jazz band, the other is an author, an operations specialist at a real estate firm or a traveling ceramics saleswoman. You won’t even know their occupations until it accidentally comes out in conversation at your fourth dinner party together.
Upon looking back to a few social gatherings in the States, I remember how everyone was eerily similar. Generally in the same income brackets. But also went to the same caliber of school, drive similar cars, have the same interests and lifestyles. And when they had babies, bought the same stroller, vacationed in the same places and downloaded the same daily planner apps. A lot of table conversation centered around industry talk or grumbling about how busy work was.
Perhaps its about not challenging comfort zones. Or maybe a need for belonging to a group of similar individuals. I’m not sure. Whichever the reason, its not the setting for me.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this post! It’s amazing how some cultures are total opposite from others. I, myself, love how the Europeans approach the dining experience – all about living life and living in the moment!
This surprised me too when I was in Italy! One of my CouchSurfing hosts told me “what do you do” is a sensitive question to ask, especially among young people, because so many are un- or under-employed…not sure how true that is.
I had no idea Italians don’t discuss work in casual conversation the way Americans do. Very interesting! Love that they don’t define themselves by their jobs. We’re considering moving to Italy, so I’ll definitely check out your article on First Impressions also.
I really don’t like when people ask about work or age! I try to avoid those subjects until i get to know the person better. Just another reason for me to love Italians, they have a lot of things right.
This is such a great perspective. As an American, I often find myself jealous of the work-life balance my brother who moved to Europe experiences. I’m pretty adamant about not working in the evenings and on the weekends, but I always feel like it makes people view me as a slacker.
I am also guilty of asking those questions when I meet new people, it is natural for me as a Norwegian as an icebreaker as well. But I try more and more to stop that and ask other more interesting questions as well.
I think in the US we prioritize work so much that it’s natural to ask people where they spend the majority of their time. But in Europe in general I feel like there is a better work/life balance, so asking people how they choose to spend their free time is a little more intuitive. Having lived in the US, Italy, and now Germany, I much prefer the European way of living, but I do usually ask people what they do to start a conversation!
I’ve always thought that was a weird question to ask, even though I’m from the U.S. In my case, my career does define me and my interests (I’m a photographer), so I don’t mind talking about it. But I know so many people who work lame jobs but are amazing people. I feel that question/answer can sometimes lead to pre-judgement before the person even gets the chance to know you. Great post!