It has been 173 days and 18 hours ca. since I landed in the United States for my Fulbright-Schuman experience. Such an experience. I never expected that my “cultural ambassador” duties would have been so intense. But let’s say: an extreme pleasure. Luckily enough, my project on Privacy and profiling had me ended up at the MIT Media Lab, i.e. a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds, races, and minds from all over the world.
Namely, a great chance to meet people and compare my very Italian background (mixed up with a pan-European mindset and an acquired Irish/Spanish contamination) with that of the people I met. Fulbrighters’ channels played their role in it and thanks to many spontaneous meet-ups or organized events, I had the chance to get in touch with a variety of individuals that covered a broad spectrum of personalities, countries, and fields of research. With each of them, I had fascinating conversations (both serious and silly) and was pretty cool to see how many differences there are among people concerning their cultural background and how it shapes what they take for granted or the way they think. Obviously, this was much more evident – quantitatively speaking and just because of a de facto exposure – with American people. Given the fact that one of my flatmates was American, this was even more impactful. In these months, I learned a lot (aside from the research) about American people and America as a country.
Many of my stereotypes were false, others were true, and others were yet understandable once I knew their roots. One of my favorite things to do when interacting with others, especially English mother tongue people, was to use and directly translate Italian idiomatic sentences. My American friends went crazy for it and always laugh when I explained the meaning. For instance, my flatmate favorite’s one was “I know my chickens” (meaning one that foresees how some people will behave in a particular future situation). Another one was “I killed the beast” (meaning that one made such an effort to achieve something), which I was used to saying when returning home (after riding the stairs) with multiple heavy bags from the grocery. Also, it was pretty fun to see the counter-stereotypes that Americans have about Italians …and how actually they ended up spreading them around the world, such that now even people from other countries think these to be true. For instance, the typical two-hands gesture Americans do while saying “mamma mia” doesn’t make sense – at all – to Italians. In truth, a similar gesture, but with one hand only and performed differently, is common among Italians to say “what (the hell) do you want?”.
Furthermore, it has been nice to see that many third-generation American people with Italians roots considered themselves Italians and were so proud of their origins. It was just strange to me that they didn’t talk a word in Italian and know very few things about the – let’s say “original” – Italian culture. And, for instance, they wouldn’t believe that “spaghetti and meatball” don’t exist in Italy! When it comes to Italians, pizza is the first word an American would pronounce and how you can have a good “real” Italian pizza in that place they know. Well, don’t trust it, at least with high expectations. I got invited to eat a “very Italian pizza,” and to be honest, my skepticism wasn’t misplaced: indeed, I was provided with a too cheesy (unfortunately not real mozzarella), thick, chicken and pesto pizza. Well, let’s just say that your Italian grandma would disinherit you if she only knew that combination of heresy. Here in the US, one pizza is enough for many people and everyone just gets a slice or two, while in Italy, you have your own personal pizza all for you. Aside from that, it is curious that Americans can actually claim pizza as a national dish, as well as Italy, could. In fact, pizza spread in north Italy just in the 70s and beforehand was only a south-Italian dish, typical from the Naples area, and unknown to the rest of the north. In the US, instead, pizza arrived in the early ‘900, maybe before, with Italian immigrants and so New York and Boston got it way before then my hometown back in Italy (Pavia, for the records). Even more curious is that “pizza” is actually a German word (Lombard, more precisely), or at least their pronunciation of the Mediterranean “pita” that they encountered in the 6th century when invaded Italy. Note that at that time the pita didn’t have yet any tomato on it, because it came only after the discovery of the Americas, and this is another link. However, allow me proudly to say – even to grandma – that the Chicago style pizza is amazingly good. Well done, American friends.
Diving into the diversities and common features, I realized that actually, the US has a lot in common with the Roman empire and my American friends eventually supported my allegations. Aside from the fact that the very first name of Washington D.C. should have been New Rome and that much of its architecture and Capitol Hill frescos (painted by the Italian Brumidi) are directly inspired by the ancient Rome, there are many many things out there that seems pretty similar. Both have an eagle as emblem and bot have and rely upon a great army. Essentially, they built cities in the same way (grids) and extended their cultural hegemony over the world. Both share the passion for circus in their respective forms. The language too has similar impressive traits, as both English and Latin have the strength to convey complicated concepts with a few simple words and rely on synthesis. As Americans do with Latin, Romans did with ancient Greek and Romans created a trace back to Greece (Troy) to legitimate their nobility, as nowadays Americans do by tracing back their ancestors back in Europe. Moreover, Americans use Latin in their official ancient motto, e.g. “e pluribus unum”, and adopt many Latin idiomatic sentences still nowadays (say i.e., which stands for id est). That’s actually pretty fun for us (Italians), as US people pronounce Latin words with English-like sounds and it sounds to us like it would look to them if we’d pronounce English words reading them in Italian – meaning reading all the letters of a word and each with a single sound -. So, when I hear some English-speaking people saying “vice versa” with their English reading manner, I always feel like a scratch in my ears. Must also confess that I still feel strange when I must use some Latin phrasing in with English-speaking people and I’m split: if I’d pay value to linguistic, I should pronounce Latin words as they really should sound, but they wouldn’t understand me. On the contrary, if I pronounce Latin words as Anglo-Saxon do, I feel guilty, silly, and even a bit a betrayer. Nevertheless, about Latin and the English culture, there is something that creates the most significant intercultural misunderstandings between Americans and Italians and that is, precisely, the Latin sentence for misunderstanding!
Americans always make a “quid pro quo” with the “quid pro quo” sentence: they use it with the meaning “this for that” (which is the literal Latin meaning) and precisely aiming at giving something in return for something else. Well, the Latin sentence for the latter is “do ut des” (literally “giving in order to obtain”, while “quid pro quo” means “this INSTEAD of that”, i.e. a misunderstanding. Of course, when Italians speak with native English speakers and use “quid pro quo”, the latter usually make the face of “what does a quid pro quo has to do in this context?!”, and the same do Italians reversely when English speakers use it. However, my comparison between cultures didn’t end here. My project was precisely about the comparison between EU and US Privacy regulations, and it was impressive to discover how the different conceptualization of Privacy changes according to geography, time and cultures. About it, the great quid pro quo (misunderstand) between the US and the EU is about data ownership, which does not really exist in Europe, were privacy is a personhood right (and so, you cannot sell it and neither your data). It was very challenging to explain it to an American audience, and the whole legal regime behind this concept. Hopefully, I did a good job and have put a seed (“seminar” come from Latin word for seed) that I hope will grow. I did it thanks to Fulbright-Schuman grants, which represent a fantastic opportunity to bridge different cultures, values, and people and I’m grateful and proud I had the chance to be awarded this prestigious program. Now that my journey is ending, I feel sad to leave the US but also looking forward to coming back to old Europe and tell my European mates all these funny things. Maybe in front of a (Chicago) pizza and avoiding quid pro quo…
Arrivederci, United States.
Gianluigi Riva is a 2019-2020 Fulbright Student Researcher in Law at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Gianluigi M. Riva is a Marie Curie Ph.D. fellow in Privacy, Ethics and New Technologies at the University College Dublin, School of Information and Communication within the TEAM– ITN (H2020), with a project on invasive technologies and consent-manipulation. He represents Ireland at the EU COST Action no.16207 on Problematic Usage of the Internet. Currently, he is a visiting researcher at Telefonica Innovaciò Alpha in Barcelona, Spain, to develop Ethics and Privacy by Design guidelines in Human-Computer Interaction. Before joining academia, he was an attorney at Law, a certified Data Protection Officer, and an ADR qualified mediator.
Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.