There is something Italians seem to always do when they enter a restaurant. Most of the time they’ll look around a bit, then take the table nearest other Italians. It’s not unusual to see a restaurant with 5 tables filled out of 30, and they’re all stuffed into the same corner.
How tables at a restaurant are populated by Italians is in direct opposition to the course taken by Americans, who will look for the biggest amount of open space they can find and choose a table smack in the middle of it.
Face it, we seem to need “privacy” at every moment of our lives, in private and in public.
Here’s the thing: you might be surprised to know that there is no word for “privacy” in Italian, according to cross-cultural guru Elizabeth Abbot.
Even from what I’ve observed in Italy, that revelation sort of stunned me. So I checked. Yes, The Italian Institute for Privacy is really Instituto Italiano Privacy.
And the Instituto is new.
Much of Italian life takes place in the public sphere, where “privacy” isn’t what you came for. Cafes, restaurants, and other Italian institutions facilitate interaction. Sure you can make coffee at home, but it won’t—or really can’t—taste better than the cup you get standing at a cafe surrounded by your friends and neighbors.
When I was living in Sedilo, Sardinia, I looked out at the landscape outside of town and asked someone why there weren’t houses built to exploit this natural beauty and the privacy that would come from houses set apart from each other.
“But there’s no one out here! I’d be afraid to live out here! Everybody would!” came the reply.
In some ways, this is one of the big reasons I like the European life. While there is certainly a whole lot of distrust of “the other” in Italian society, there is also the inherent belief that if enough people are around, the majority of them will be decent enough to help someone who might need it. It’s about balance. It’s also about recognizing the common good that can be achieved without nasty government intervention.
So you can walk in a big city ‘round midnight by following the glow of light from the bars and cafes where good people, no doubt, will be sitting outside, nursing a glass of wine. You don’t worry (excessively) about the couple of thuggery-looking kids on the corner because people have an eye out, and most petty thugs just don’t like a big audience.
There’s a lot going on in the example above—but in some ways it points out the differences between attitudes in the US and Europe. In the US, bars are bad, because the only people who frequent them want to drink to excess and then either drive home or kill someone by other means. So, the supply of bars that families or other “good people” can go to becomes limited, and the prophesy becomes self-fulfilling.
In Italy you can get a sandwich, coffee or an ice cream in most bars. Families go there. And where good people congregate, bad things are certainly less likely to happen.
Perhaps the problem is that the English word “privacy” has come to be applied to all conditions. We want privacy from our neighbors, from strangers, from the government and from institutions. From everybody under all conditions. (People ask me, “where is the best place to go in Europe?” When I ask them their preferences so that I may answer the question logically and personally, they usually take this to be an invasion of privacy and never write back.)
Italians, on the other hand, have already taken the time to erect huge barriers between themselves and Government. This construction wasn’t about “privacy”, it was about distrust of agents most likely to harm them in a big way if too much became known about them. It was simply “the way things are done and will always be done.”
And there’s a little bit of frontier justice to it all. In Italy the tax man carries a gun. There is probably need to do so.
(I have an Italian checking account. There are lines I’m supposed to fill in on the checks I don’t understand. You see, I don’t ever write checks because no one takes them. Paper trail? Bad.)
Despite the loss of personal freedom that comes with social responsibility, I like the Italian way. Privacy should be the barrier between you and the government that you have responsibility as a good citizen to distrust. It should also be the barrier between you and the big businesses who finance and benefit from the illicit corporate state.
I figure the latter is the growing problem that made Italians go fishing for a word to use. It’s that globalization thing.