In this globalizing and dynamic world, one thing is certain: you cannot move across the world without encountering a few cultural differences.
It makes sense then, that being an American living in Italy, I’ve seen several cultural differences and varying perceptions. One of the biggest: the way we view time. Why is it that Italians show up 10 minutes late to an appointment and feel like they are on time? Why do Americans frantically run to work and always feel so late even though we are normally on time? In college I learned that different cultures have different perceptions of time. A culture can have a monochronic or a polychronic orientation of time; neither is good or bad, right or wrong. They are just different.
America is a monochronic culture. We believe that time is a precious commodity; it is meant to be made, used, wasted, spent, given, allotted, and saved. Our lives are a series of rigid schedules and each day is chopped up into time blocks. 9 – 10:45 AM : eat breakfast. 11 AM – 7 PM : work. 7 – 8 PM : dinner. Repeat.
Italy, on the other hand, is a polychronic culture. People with this time orientation see time as a flowing river; it is smooth and one minute flows into the next. If something isn’t done this minute, it can be done the next. These people do not see time as tangible or controllable. There are things to be done, but they’ll get done.
Okay, so what the heck does that mean? How does it affect you as an American living in Italy? Here are some differences I have found:
1. Italian businesses open and close whenever. In America, businesses have set business hours. If you come between those hours, you expect the business to be open. But, here in Italy, that’s not always the case. I have gone to restaurants at 8 PM on a non-holiday Tuesday night to find them closed and locked up tight. There was no note explaining the reason for the closure, no anticipated time of reopening, and no sign stating what the normal business hours are.
2. Say goodbye to to-go food. Americans are constantly running around. We drink our coffee as we are sprinting to work and stuff our face with food as we walk or drive. Almost all businesses are equipped to handle to go orders; they hoard stockpiles of cardboard boxes, plastic silverware, and plastic cups. But, it’s not like that in Italy. Getting to-go food here is very hard, and the places that do offer it are extremely touristy (AKA not the authentic Italian food or experience you are probably looking for). Get this – Italians actually like to sit and enjoy their food. They don’t skip their lunch break to get more finished and they drink their coffee in a “bar” (coffee shop) and enjoy it. They don’t eat on the streets. I know, it sounds so….pleasant and relaxing. Try it!
3. Italians walk, Americans run. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get to work when there are a bunch of people slowly meandering down the street in front of you. The streets here in Florence are tiny; you can barely fit two people side by side on the sidewalk. So when there are people leisurely walking in front of you and there is no room to get around them, it can be quite the difficult task to stop yourself from shouting “Move with a purpose!!” But, instead of being frustrated, just try looking up. I know that sounds ridiculous, but try it. When you hurry you get caught up in trying to get somewhere and you forget to stop and look around. If you’re studying abroad, you’re not going to be in Italy forever, so what will you remember when you get back to America? Running to class or that amazing old building that had really intricate design that was on your way to class?
4. Americans tend to burn themselves out. We, as Americans, think that every minute must be milked for all it’s worth. There is always somewhere to be, something to be done. This constant pressure we put on ourselves can only be maintained for so long before we break down and/or burn out. So what do we do when we can’t take it anymore? We spend two days on the couch in a trance watching really bad TV. We tell ourselves its our reward for being so productive and for getting so much done in the past week. So we give ourselves permission to completely veg out, eat junk food, forego cooking real food or leaving the house. But, after one of these weekends, we feel guilty because we did absolutely nothing except rot our minds with hours of Walking Dead or How I Met Your Mother. There is not one shred of evidence from the whole weekend that we were a living, breathing, intelligent person. The whole thing is a blur in our minds, leaving us unable to differentiate one hour (or episode) from the next. Sound familiar? Perhaps this isn’t the best method of being. Perhaps an afternoon nap everyday to rest our worried minds and achy bodies isn’t the worst idea…In Italy, dinner is closer to 8 PM and clubs don’t open until midnight or later. This can be frustrating for us when we are used to eating dinner around 6 or 7 and most clubs (at least in the rural areas) close by 1 or 2 AM. But instead of going nonstop from when you wake up until you fall asleep, try to use the break between classes and the Italian dinner time to relax and unwind. It might keep you from burning out as quickly.
5. Italians value relationships, Americans value promptness. Just to be clear, I am not saying Americans don’t value relationships. Obviously we do. But, we show respect in our relationships by being on time. If we’re supposed to meet at 8, be there at 8. We have a mutual understanding that if we’re hanging out and I’m late for work, I have to go. And if I’m the only one at the office, I can’t close it to have lunch with you. Italians, on the other hand, will put a note on the door saying “Out to Lunch” (maybe that’s what happened when I went to those restaurants??). It is okay to be late as long as it was in the interest of maintaining a friendship with another person. Of course Americans understand if something came up, but for the most part we expect time commitments to be binding, whereas Italians do not.
Of course these are just generalizations. People are complex and every person forms different perceptions; to assume everyone fits neatly into one category is a grave mistake. One of the worst things you can do (especially as a traveler) is to form predispositions about people from other cultures and mistake those as facts.
As with all cultural differences, it is important to remember that different does not equal bad. Different is different; it requires an adjustment. There are pros and cons to both sides. Polychronic cultures may seem more chaotic and unpredictable, but there is less pressure and you have more time to stop and enjoy the little things.
While you’re studying abroad, do everything you can to embrace the culture. Stop trying to run the people in front of you over on your way to class. Learn to block off (oops – that was the monochronic orientation speaking) enough time so that you can go to a bar and enjoy a cup of coffee. Stop running yourself at the highest level of functioning you possibly can until you can’t do it anymore.
Did I miss something? Leave it in the comments! Check out some of our other blog posts: Packing for Study Abroad and Student Discounts in Florence. For more helpful information on studying abroad, visit When In Florence’s website.