Why Having a Cappuccino After Lunch is Unheard of in Italy: A Guide to Understanding Italy and Italians

Today’s post focuses on ACCENT’s Intercultural Sensitivity Project, an initiative focusing on giving ACCENT students a complete understanding of their host culture, along with comprehensive preparation for the inevitability of culture shock. ACCENT provides all students with the tools to understand their local community and connect with the people and places integral to their study abroad experience.

“Why Having a Cappuccino After Lunch is Immoral (and Almost Illegal) in Italy: A Guide to Understanding Italy and Italians” is a lecture held each semester by cross-cultural psychology Professor Christian Tarchi.

This event inaugurates the Intercultural Learning Workshop Series which takes place each semester at the ACCENT Florence Study Center. The lecture explores cultural differences between Americans and Italians by exhorting the audience to take a systemic approach when dealing with misunderstandings or cultural incidents.

Taking a systemic approach means that when people from another culture do or say something which is (apparently) senseless, we should attempt to enlarge our observational lens to catch the patterns which underlie a specific behavior or word. Put another way, we should ask ourselves: What is the function or meaning of that specific behavior or word in this culture?

Here are a couple of examples discussed during the lecture:

1) The fact that Italians would never have a cappuccino during or right after a meal acquires a different meaning when analyzed from a broader perspective. For example, one could ask the following questions: What do Italians usually have for breakfast? What do they usually have for lunch? How much time do they spend having lunch? How long is a lunch break in Italy? Taking these factors into account could explain the shock on the barman’s face when asked to prepare a cappuccino after lunch!

2) The statement that Italians seem to have no concept of privacy at all (so much so that there is no Italian for the word privacy), should be read in the context of close-knit small communities, as well as the Italian public educational system, where it is common to publish grades on boards placed in school’s public spaces. In fact, at the end of Middle and High School, Italian students know if they have passed or not, as well as their grades, by going to the school and looking at a board which is attached outside the school building. At Universities, on the dissertation day, the students are publicly declared graduated with a specific score.

During the lecture, Professor Tarchi gives the students some practical and cultural information about Italy and Italians, helping them reflect on some differences they may encounter in and out of class. He challenges them to consider a wide range of situations from a different angle: why Italian faculty may seem harsher graders; why customer service in Italy may appear slower or inefficient (for example in restaurants, where Italian customers do not appreciate being presented with the bill right after finishing their meal); why a good entrepreneur is one that does not open multiple versions of the same business; why it seems that there is a dress and behavior code for public spaces and office; why the idea that “closer is better” is deeply-rooted in this country; why there still are strong traditions that seem to inhibit certain behaviors, and so on.

Thanks to the systemic approach, Tarchi takes the students inside Italian history and culture, giving them a deeper understanding of why certain things in Italy work the way they do. Vibrant and interactive, the discussion ends up covering very diverse fields, such as Italian taboos that would not be considered such in the U.S. and vice versa (which helps the students in understanding that, even if Italians give the impression of not having a concept of privacy at all, there are some sensitive subjects they don’t appreciate talking about). Another topic of discussion is the public educational system, which is perceived to be more inclusive because it allows everyone to go to school, and for this reason, there may be a need to make a selection during the school career, given that it is not made at the entrance. Other examples include the Italian belief that being a restaurant owner is not simply a matter of giving people food, but also of making them feel at home; the fact that “standardization” is not perceived to be a good thing here; and finally that in Italy local pride is more important than national pride.

Exploring cultural differences from a systemic approach enables us to think about a certain fact in different terms: e.g., are Italians more traditional, or do they just follow certain rules that make their life better? Do they not smile, or does smiling have a different meaning here?

Among laughs and surprises, the students learn that behind a specific behavior or the use of a certain word, there’s a whole historical and cultural process going on, that behind the gesture of drinking a cappuccino, there’s a completely different lifestyle which is the result of social and political circumstances.

In the end, this lecture makes the students aware that cultural differences affect other people’s lives. Behaviors, habits, and words always have an impact on people, especially to other cultures. Trying to understand this impact may turn out to be crucial during a study abroad experience.

~Francesca Pannozzo, ACCENT Florence

ACCENT networks span academia and industry, and include dynamic speakers genuinely invested in translating their expertise into unforgettable experiential learning opportunities for our students. If you’re faculty or a study abroad office and ready to collaborate on a new program, contact us at prog-dev@accentintl.com.