Italian rooftops. Photo by pepe nero, Unsplash

Italy’s Culture Code

My reading repertoire includes 80% fantasy and 19% nonfiction, to temper all that epic storytelling (and 1% other: I do enjoy other genres…yet inevitably feel like they’re lacking in something. Castles, or magic).

I recently finished The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille. And it got me thinking about the culture code for Italy.

A look at cultural stereotypes

Culture Code by RapailleRapaille has lived, studied, and worked all over the world. He’s a marketing consultant for many famous companies, helping them get into consumers’ brains through sociological, psychoanalytical, and anthropological observations. He identifies the “codes” of target consumers and uses these to help businesses. In The Culture Code, this is a single word that exemplifies all the feelings, symbiology, and concepts connected with something (Jeeps, clothing, brands, whatever they’re trying to sell).

As a Frenchman living in America, he has an expat’s view of our country. He’s an insider, but still one step removed from American culture in a way that a native never can be.

His culture code reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s comment about discovering a city’s “word on the street” in Eat, Pray, Love. It’s what’s on everybody’s mind, influencing everyone’s actions. She thinks Rome is sex, the Vatican is power, Stockholm is conformity.

The Culture Code was fascinating. I learned a lot about American culture that I had been blind to—me, with an anthropology degree! But I didn’t agree with all his conclusions. Maybe I wish he’d given more examples where it felt like he was glossing over generalizations (though he did have a disclaimer that obviously, his theories didn’t apply to everyone). Sometimes it felt like reading a horoscope: he made a statement, and all the supporting evidence fit perfectly—but I bet he could’ve made the opposite statement and picked examples to support that. I’m not doubting his research or opinions, it’s just that culture is such a slippery beast, open to endless interpretations, and more in-depth evidence as opposed to opinion would have been more convincing.

In a way, he used the social sciences to prove why and to what extent cultural stereotypes are true. Enlightening, and fun! And I say that without a bit of sarcasm—I read this book in a day and a half.

Italy’s culture code

Naturally, Rapaille juxtaposed many of his observations about America with France, but I wish he had used Italy more often as an example.

He “cracked” the culture code for America (spoiler alert! …If you can have spoilers in research-based non-fiction), France, Germany, and England, but not for Italy. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read the last page. What is Italy’s culture code?

The culture code for America is DREAM.

Dreams have driven this culture from its earliest days. The dream of explorers discovering the New World. The dream of pioneers opening the West. The dream of the Founding Fathers imagining a new form of union…The dream of immigrants coming to a land of hope. The dream of a new group of explorers landing safely on the moon…We created Hollywood and Disneyland and the Internet to project our dreams out into the world. We are the product of dreams and we are the makers of dreams.

(sounds nice, right?)

Our notion of abundance is a dream: it is the dream of limitless opportunity that we believe is synonymous with being American. Our need for constant movement is the expression of a dream in which we can always do more, always create and accomplish.

The culture code for France is IDEA.

Raised on stories of great French philosophers and thinkers, French children imprint the value of ideas as paramount and refinement of the mind as the highest goal.

The culture code for Germany is ORDER.

Over many generations, Germans perfected bureaucracy in an effort to stave off the chaos that came to them in wave after wave, and Germans are imprinted early on with this most powerful of codes.

And the culture code for Italy is…QUALITY.

Originally, I thought it would be BEAUTY. Not only is Italy such a beautiful country, but it has a history of being a patron of the arts, its architecture is likewise beautiful, and even the bella figura—literally “beautiful figure,” or a good impression—has to do with attractive outside appearances.

But then I thought about the leading value in the work of wine producers, cheese makers, independent shop owners, and humble restaurateurs. They are focused on quality. Time and again, Italians take the slow path, perhaps the less lucrative path, all in the pursuit of upholding their standards for high quality.

Italian quality

In all of my winemaker interviews I’ve seen this, as well as in the many food producer stories I experienced first-hand with UNISG and—since, of course, the Slow Food University took us to places that exemplify high quality and the Slow Food philosophy—even in the simple farmers’ markets in town.

Alessandro Rivetto, a Barolo and Barbaresco wine producer, says he follows his grandfather’s advice to always make piccole cose di grande qualità: “Little things of great quality.” When I visited Cantine Garrone in the north of Piemonte, a winery cooperative that strives to keep the old ways of vineyard cultivation alive, I was told that the farmers “Treat their vineyards like gardens” and take personal pride in their grape quality—and they are not doing this hard manual work for money, but to preserve a way of life. These are just two examples of many.

Ask any Italian, from north to south, and they’ll tell you their region has the best of anything. After visiting family, they will inevitably return home weighed down with the “best quality” tomatoes, cheese, wine, salumi, etc. As kids, they are brought up eating what they are assured is of the best quality, and their taste buds are attuned to what they believe is best.

Italy itself has tapped into this ideal and has practically branded their country with Made In Italy exports.

To step out of my food and wine box with examples: In a country where people do not move far from their birthplace and where homes are much smaller than in the US, Italy is not a throw-away culture. Italians are focused on fewer things—they aren’t voracious consumers—but of buying items of higher quality. This often translates to name brands. Sure, name brands are about the prestige; but they’re also acknowledged as being of high quality.

Artisan traditions are still very much alive all over Italy, from handmade violins in Cremona to gold and jewelry in Valenza. And what is artisan called when contrasted with industrial? High quality.

What do you think? Is Italy’s culture code QUALITY, or something else?

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13 thoughts on “Italy’s Culture Code

    1. A very interesting book; I have pages of Kindle notes on it.

      I thought “quality” went more in-depth than just “beauty.” I also thought of “design.” But I still feel like it could be something else, like Karen’s comment about the bella vita…or does that fall under quality, like quality of life?

      Thanks for reading!

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  1. Great article. Another word that comes to my mind when I think of Italy is style. But I think quality may grasp a wider range of the essence of Italian culture. Style doesn’t apply to any of the food and drink for which Italy is renowned.

    On Sun, Jan 15, 2017 at 12:28 PM, Once Upon a Time in Italy wrote:

    > Diana posted: “My reading repertoire includes 80% fantasy and 19% > nonfiction, to temper all that epic storytelling (and 1% other: I do enjoy > other genres…yet inevitably feel like they’re lacking in something. > Castles, or magic). I recently finished The Culture Code” >

    Like

    1. Right. And similar to style is design, another word I thought of–both of which fall under beauty, I’d say. And that’s why I was undecided between beauty and quality.

      Like

  2. You pose an interesting question. I think quality is a good answer. I had to smile at the part of how Italians think that what comes from their region is the best quality. When I taught English in Calabria and I’d ask the students about their school trips to other regions, invariably they’d complain about the food. I’d respond – Seriously? You found the food disgusting in Puglia? – or wherever they went. Granted, they were probably eating group meals that didn’t cost much, but they were just in love with their own products and Grandma’s preparation of them.
    Italians do respect quality in everything, but an alternative idea could be that they’re searching out the bella vita, and you have to have quality food, art, clothes, panoramas, etc. to really enjoy yourself.

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    1. Ha, isn’t that funny when they turn their nose up at other regions? And 99% of Italians from every region does this. Little do they know…their food is EXCELLENT everywhere!

      I can see the culture code being “bella vita.” It’s the enjoyment of life as it is, right now. It would explain the general lack of movement–like moving to other cities or changing careers several times in life–because once they find the bella vita, they simply want to enjoy it and not change it or even strive for more. But, bella vita is also quality of life, so might fall under quality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, but many have been forced to move away from the south to find work, and I’m always amazed that they hold on to their roots for so many generations.
        I can certainly understand not wanting to move away from a great source of food, though. You can’t blame them for that!

        Liked by 1 person

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