Italian kindness – is it a cultural value?

In this quarter of the year I have seen a number of pieces of journalism about kindness, its power, and whether we as Australians have enough of it.  At the same time I saw an article in The Age about the kindness of some Roman policemen that seemed to touch the hearts of many.  An elderly couple, both in their late 80’s, had been heard crying in their apartment in Rome, the police had been called by neighbours, and when asked what was wrong the couple had told them that they were lonely, and a bit frightened by events they saw on their nightly news.  The policemen’s response?  They made the elderly couple a bowl of pasta each, with burro e parmigiano, and sat talking with them awhile.

I got to thinking about kindness and whether it was a cultural value or a human value.  Were some societies kinder than others, or did they value it higher?

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The actions of the police did not surprise me at all.  It illustrated what I have always felt about Italians, and experienced living in Italy, they have what I call a ‘human first’ approach to life.  That is, above everything I am first a human in their eyes.  I may also be a customer, a tax payer, a recipient of a service, a citizen with rights and obligations, a patient, a competitor, a tourist, a student, a stranger, a passenger, a worker, a bank account holder, a voter. But before all of these things I am a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a wife, a husband, and a human.  This means I am responded to first, as one of these categories, before any of the others.  This has its advantages and its disadvantages.

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I remember one time when I had been living in Rome less than a year and the gas rings on my stove top didn’t work anymore.  My Irish flatmate and I did not speak much Italian but we were sure that the phone number on our gas bill was where you reported any problems with your gas supply.  We were surprised when we were told that someone would be out to check within half an hour.  Services did not usually respond that quickly.  We were even more surprised when twenty minutes later we opened the door to four men wearing gas masks attached to oxygen tanks, full protective clothing, and carrying machinery and pipes.

Instead of being angry that we had called the National Emergency Services because we couldn’t cook our pasta, they kindly took off their protective gear, and fixed our gas faucets for free.

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Last month when I returned to Rome for a visit, rather than take a taxi to my apartment from the train station with my luggage, I wanted to walk through the quartier and savour my return.  As I dragged my huge suitcase over cobble stones, cracked pavements and between parked cars, picking my way slowly to my old apartment I was both sweating and crying at the same time, overcome with joy at being back.

Are you OK Signora?  I got asked every 10 metres.  Are you lost?  Do you need help?

No, no thanks, I kept replying, I’m at home, I’m OK, thank you.

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I remembered another time, exasperated with frustration, when I demanded to know from our local Roman bus driver why the bus was always twenty minutes late, and why two of the same number bus always arrived together every forty minutes instead of one every twenty minutes.   He told me that they didn’t want to leave the other one alone at the bus depot.

I remember the conversations I have with some Australians about how 20,000 refugees a year arriving in Australia seem to be too many for them.  While Italy receives 100,000 a year in a country the size of Victoria, and with three times our population, without locking them in prison or deporting them.  It’s the human first principle at work again, to one countries demise we might surmise, given Italy’s economic crisis.  But to the overall improvement of global kindness as a cultural value we hope.

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6 thoughts on “Italian kindness – is it a cultural value?

  1. I love this post. I am from an Italian family, grew up in the US and then chose to move back to Italy as a grown up. People always ask me if there is racism in Italy. My family is Sicilian and I always say “And Sicily is an island. There is a lot of xenophobia, a lot of fear of who is different. And there are also tons of fisherman who put their lives and their livelihoods at risk, getting in their own fishing boats at all hours and in all conditions to help immigrants coming in on rafts. They do this because the Sicilian takes the time to imagine the fear and sacrifice and condition of the people coming in. Because the people coming in never stop being equal humans to the Sicilians.”

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    • Hi Anna Maria, apologies this has taken so long to answer your great comment. You gave me goosebumps and echoe what I was trying to communicate in this article. You say it beautifully ” the people coming in never stop being equal humans to the Sicilians.” This is a unique gift that i believe italians have that is sorely lacking in Anglo-Saxon countries. The ability to “imagine the fear and sacrifice and condition of the refugees” and to act from that place rather than a place of fear or concern that your own position may be threatened by allowing these people in. There is a hierarchy of concern (reflected in the United Nations Charter of Human Rights) and those who are in physical danger (drowning, starvation, cold) always come first. Italians never forget that and are more ‘humane’ as a race as a result of that I believe. The examples you give back that up. Thank you again for sharing. Best regards, Bronte

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  2. Thanks Bronte, I loved your story. What an interesting question. I believe kindness is a decision individuals make, acts upon and that behaviour becomes contagious. You never need a reason to be kind, right! Shame there’s not more of it here in Australia.

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