Cultural Differences: Following the Rules

Note: Old post, edited in the conclusion

Italy is a country that is famous (infamous?) for having no rule that cannot be bent, twisted or outright broken. With sound logic and/or a sad story you can sway pretty much anyone to do pretty much anything for you, even if its not 100% by the book. It is because of this, coupled with an unhealthy love of certain foods, that I knew that some of my friends here would be amused by a few choice stories of mine and my father’s from the good old US of A, which is famous/infamous for the exact opposite.

Story Number 1: My mother and I went to one of those places in the North West where you can pick your own apples, and in exchange you pay very little for them. When we had finished we saw that they also had zucchini that were ready to be picked, and on those zucchini the biggest, most beautiful zucchini flowers we had ever seen. Now Italians love their zucchini flowers, on pasta, stuffed with mozzarella and fried, nom nom nom. We asked hey, can we buy them off you? No they said, they don’t sell them. So what do you do with them? We throw them away, they responded. So…. Can you give them to us? No. So… can you put them next to the trash can so that we can take them when you’re “not looking”? No. In conclusion, they were so flabbergasted by this odd request, not even knowing that zucchini flowers are edible, that they preferred throwing them away rather than giving them to us. We left with faces reminiscent of a child’s when you give them a toy to touch for five seconds and then snatch it away.

Story Number 2: My father was living in New York back in the day when espresso was non-existent in the United States. Italians are very particular about their coffee, and he was dreaming of having a proper espresso at night. One day a colleague told him that a fancy hotel had just bought this super fancy pants espresso machine that made real Italian coffee, and before he could finish his sentence my father was there. He saw that the machine had settings one through five and that the machine was set at five, which still made a coffee that was 3-4times more watery than what he wanted.

Dad: Great! I want an espresso, but make mine on the “one” setting
Barista: … No, I can’t touch the machine
Dad: If you can’t touch the machine, how are you going to make the coffee?
Barista: I mean I can’t touch the setting
Dad: But… that’s what it’s there for!
Barista: I can’t touch the machine Sir.
Dad: Look, if you’re afraid of breaking the machine I’ll come behind the counter, change the setting myself, and if it breaks you can sue me and I’ll pay for it
Barista: I can’t do that Sir
Dad: Please get the manager. (To manager) can I please have my espresso on the one setting now?
Manager: No Sir.

My father wanted to jump behind the counter and slap him, but eventually was forced to leave without his coffee. I can only imagine how livid he was.

Actually I don’t have to imagine, because I have one of these little stories of my very own.

Story Number 3: I was twelve years old and very excited to be cooking for my American family. I decided to make them a pasta all’amatriciana, a typical Roman pasta that is awesome. However you need cubed bacon for it (guanciale really, but I’ll take what I can get), and as you all know bacon in the States is sold very thinly sliced. Thin slices crisp up and taste completely differently, there was no point in making it without the cubed bacon, so my grandmother and I go in search of unsliced bacon. We must have gone to six different supermarkets and finally, success! I find one with a meat counter, where I spot a young man standing in front of a piece of bacon the perfect size for me. There was no one else at the counter, I run up and say

Me: Great! Can I have that piece of bacon please?
Meat Guy: How would you like that sliced?
Me: No thanks, no need to slice it, just wrap it up for me.
Meat Guy: I can’t do that.
Me:… And why not?
Meat Guy: Because I’m supposed to sell sliced bacon
Me: Do you sell it by the slice or by the pound?
Meat Guy: By the pound
Me: Right, so what difference does it make to you if it’s sliced or not? It weighs the same! I’m offering to buy the whole piece!
Meat Guy: I have to slice it.
Me: Ugh fine! Give me four slices half an inch thick then
Meat Guy: I can’t do that
Meat Guy: My slicer doesn’t slice that thick
Me: And how thickly does it slice?
Meat Guy: about a quarter of that
Me: So why don’t you pick up that big knife there and slice it yourself?
Meat Guy: No, I have to slice it with the slicer

At this point my grandmother rushed up to me and physically pulled me away from him, because I was about to jump over the counter, strangle him and grab the bacon myself. Here is this twelve year old girl arguing with an adult, trying to reason with him, and the crazy thing was she never spoke up except to inquire if the manager was around (which he wasn’t). What was worse she seemed to think it was perfectly normal for this guy to categorically refuse to sell me the bacon without slicing it first, and it was incomprehensible to me.

Telling this story I was getting agitated, and my friends were laughing hysterically partially at the story, but partially because it seemed as though, sixteen years later I still hadn’t gotten over not getting my bacon. Of course I’m not still upset about the bacon (I wound up finding some unsliced Canadian bacon further on, in your face meat guy), but something about this story was definitely still bothering me. The question was, why?

I realized that it had to do with the utter lack of logic that I was butting heads with. It was not only the inability to reason and follow a logical train of thought to a seemingly obvious conclusion, but more tragically it was the fact that this pigheadedness was considered perfectly normal by others around me, in this last case my grandmother. Of course he didn’t listen to you, what do you expect? He’s not paid to think! You were asking him a huge favor, you can’t blame him for not complying.

As I got older, I realized that there was another fundamental element to the complete unwillingness of these people to think outside the box for a fraction of a second. It is the fear of getting fired. The cultural difference that underlies this story is not about Italians being more logical than Americans, that would be an absurd argument to make. The cultural difference is in how much importance our respective societies place on following rules. In Italy it would not cross someone’s mind for an instant that they would be fired for selling a customer unsliced bacon, if anything they would be more likely to be fired for being obtuse and creating an unhappy customer. My grandmother’s reaction, in which she was embarrassed by my behavior rather than taking my side in trying to reason with the guy behind the counter, is also emblematic of this culture. If someone does not bend the rules for you that is only to be expected, and definitely not something that you have a right to get frustrated about. In Italy bending the rules is a given, and if they have no obvious logical reason for existing, they are disregarded entirely. Asking someone to give away their zucchini flowers if they are destined for the trash, or to sell them unsliced bacon is such a small infraction it does not even qualify as a bent rule.

This is also why my father and I attempted to reason with these employees, to find alternative solutions to get what we wanted. We erroneously thought that they had misunderstood, or were afraid of something that they needn’t have feared. In reality, getting fired over idiotically miniscule not-complying-100%-to-rules does happen in the States, but for us we didn’t even realize we were asking them to bend the rules at all.

To be clear, I’m not mad about the bacon any more. However, I can’t deny that, if such a scenario happened to me again, I wouldn’t go through the entire cycle of reasoning-arguing-leaving very angry, all over again. Getting between an Italian and their food is…. well…. inadvisable.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    This experience is so common in England we actually have a word for it: jobsworth.

    As in “I can’t do that, it’s more than me job’s worth, mate!”

  2. johnson catman says

    Wow! Those are definitely maddening situations. I cannot imagine how a manager would deny a customer such a request in any of those. Maybe it is just the stores that I frequent usually have no problems with special requests, or maybe I just suffer from privilege, but I too would be in a rage at the lack of logic in all three of those instances. (I know you said the manager was not available in the bacon incident.)

  3. anat says

    Israel is very much like Italy in this aspect, with working around the rules as a way of working with the rules very much ingrained in the culture. This is why many Israelis have the impression that USians are somehow mentally deficient, but they were trained to behave that way by a litigatory culture and bad job market.

    • smrnda says

      I feel like in the USA, it’s mostly that places of business are all mostly huge, top-down corporations which might as well have ‘know your place’ as their official motto. Workers are expected to follow policies that might even be bad for business or perhaps entail more risk, if that’s what ‘the management’ says.

      Smaller firms, if you’re talking to the owner, will sometimes make deals, but the same owner would probably fire an employee for the exact same deal. It’s why I know that, if I walk into a place where the owner usually gives me a deal of some kind, or something unusual, and the owner isn’t there, I don’t even ask.

  4. says

    As a rigid Swede I’ve found Brits to be quite flexible about rules. At the places I’ve worked I’d check with a manager or other responsible person “Is it OK if I bend rule X?” and they’d invariably respond “As long as I don’t know about it.” which would then make my head spin with thoughts of what else I could get away with if I just did it in secret.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    For the third example, at least, I can make a guess at what was going through the mind of the people behind the counter. Businesses in the US are motivated by one, overarching principle that governs all that they do: fear of being sued. The thought probably was: “If I don’t slice this, then this person will probably cook it in some weird way that doesn’t work. The person will then inevitably come down with trichinosis and come back with a lawyer.” I’d guess that Italians are much less lawyer-happy.

    I didn’t say it was a GOOD reason, but it’s a reason.

  6. Parse says

    Half of following-rules-to-the-letter is the fear of getting fired – especially in larger businesses, there’s a nontrivial possibility that the customer you’ve never seen before, who’s asking for special treatment, is a secret shopper. Somebody hired by the corporate office to make sure that all the front-level employees are following the rules to the letter. And yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

    The other half is that the rules, as much as they are a straightjacket for the employees, are also a shield. Businesses don’t like angry customers, and asshole customers recognize and abuse that fact. An asshole will go up the company chain, complaining that Employee Joe at the Springfield location didn’t hand-cut their bacon for them and demanding compensation for their bad experience and/or Joe be fired. Joe’s defense is that the all-controlling rules say that all meat must be cut on the slicer, so even though the customer is unhappy and making noise, Joe did the right thing. (I’m not trying to call you or your grandmother assholes here, as you clearly didn’t do that. What makes an asshole an asshole in this case is their reaction to being denied special treatment, not asking for it in the first place.)

  7. wereatheist says

    I expected to be the post about difference between rule-bending Italy and anally rule-fixated Germany. But on german meat-counters, you might get your bacon sliced the way you like.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I am actually planning a follow up about Germany too! Completely different kind of rule-rigidity there though

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