Thursday, June 12, 2014
How to Explain Americans: Notes for a Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"
Beppe Severgnini, How to Explain Americans, New York Times
JUNE 11, 2014
MILAN — “Do you remember your, ahem, appreciative remarks to the woman who marched onto the assembly line? Don’t do that when the Americans are here. A woman from Italy might laugh; a Michigan girl will sue.”
If I’m going to explain how I came to discuss gender etiquette with a bunch of Italian autoworkers, a little context is in order.
The Italian automaker Fiat-Chrysler owns a big plant at Melfi, in southern Italy, where it decided to concentrate production of a new compact sport utility vehicle, the Jeep Renegade. It’s a $1.3 billion investment, and the 6,000 workers are happy: Their jobs are secure for several years, the plant is state of the art and there are no issues with skills or technology. But what worries the workers is this: How do we deal with these Americans who are coming to help get production rolling?
Melfi is a small town, and contact with Americans is rare. So the factory was looking around for someone to explain how the American mind works. I write about the United States, I’ve lived there and I’ve traveled extensively in the country. “He’ll do,” they figured.
That’s why I traveled 630 miles from Milan to clamber onto a makeshift podium in the middle of the Melfi factory floor before 1,000 people. Most were blue-collar workers, even though they wore Melfi’s stylish white.
“Americans are great to work with, but they have their manias, just like us,” I started out. “They are obsessed by three C’s: control, competition and choreography. You may think this is odd, but you have to respect it. After all, the United States is the most powerful country on the planet.”
“But we had to step in and save Chrysler,” someone joked.
I ignored it. Control: One of the basic expressions of American English is “to be in control.” The Italian equivalent is not “controllare,” which leaves the listener expecting to be told what is being controlled (An automobile? A bad habit? An erring partner?). The American phrase implies that you “have the situation under control.” Any situation — health, a war, your children’s school records.
Numbers are America’s tranquilizers. In Italy, we say “piove” (it’s raining) or “non piove” (it isn’t raining); in America, they want to know exactly how much rain fell. American roads are numbered and Americans give north/south/east/west directions; we just say “vai di qui, vai di là” (go this way, go that way).
Control reveals America’s passion for order and predictability. How-to books date from Benjamin Franklin, who was always quick to spot a market niche. America is a nation of optimistic self-improvers, convinced that happiness is above all a question of mind over matter.
The books also prove that Americans reject the idea that success comes all at once, without effort or luck. Often, we Italians mistake this for naïveté, but it actually reflects a love of precision and a desire to stay in charge of your own life. Don’t mock it.
The second C-word is competition. Americans love it; we fear it. Americans are prepared to lose in order to win, in almost every aspect of life. In Italy — and in most of Europe — we hate losing more than we love winning and tend to settle for an uneventful draw.
Come to think of it, competition goes a long way toward explaining the excellence and excesses of the United States, including the abundance of colleges, the number of television channels and the financial instability of the many airlines. You build automobiles here. Your American colleagues know that these automobiles have to be better than the ones your competitors make. If they aren’t, it’s only right that you go bust.
For a long time in Italy, we thought that back-scratching regulations and protectionism would save our industry. How wrong we were. Competition in America is more than a healthy economic precept; it’s a moral imperative.
The third word on the list is choreography. In Italy, important events like presidential inaugurations, national holidays or graduation ceremonies are slightly boring. Americans are convinced that anything important has also got to be spectacular, if not plain over the top, and ear-splittingly loud.
Not long ago in Boston, I was watching a basketball game with a friend. I asked him how the ultra-politically-correct United States could — figuratively speaking — embrace both feminism and cheerleaders. The answer was, “Feminism is good. Cheerleaders are good-looking.” Then he borrowed my binoculars. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t checking out the progress of feminism. Does that contradict what I was saying earlier about not discussing your women colleagues’ appearance? So be it. Add “contradiction” to our list of American C’s.
But there is a fourth word, and it doesn’t begin with C. That word is trust. Americans who come to Italy — be they politicians, tourists, businesspeople or engineers — think that we are smart and fun, but also unreliable. And Melfi is in the south, which is Italy squared. Is this a stereotype? Who cares? All countries suffer from stereotypes.
When the Americans come, surprise them. Be reliable. Always be on time. Never complain. You guys are smart. Be precise about money, timekeeping and calling in sick. Do this for a few months and then shift up a gear to turbo-Italian. Introduce the Americans to your friends and families. Ask them out for dinner — a plate of orecchiette pasta will blow any American away.
So amaze those Americans. You can do it. You’re Italians. No one else is so skillful at turning a crisis into a party. The automobile industry, I’m sure, is no exception.
Beppe Severgnini is a columnist at Corriere della Sera and the author of “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 12, 2014, in The International New York Times.