Blog Post Four
You can spend your entire life learning about other cultures, countries, and customs in a classroom, but until you are transplanted directly into those cultures, you will never truly understand. At least this was the case for me. So, what did I learn through this study abroad experience? Well, it can be broken down into two main concepts. The first is that I have a much greater appreciation for anyone assimilating into a new country or culture and the second is that by being immersed into another culture, I was able to better identify my own social identity.
When studying abroad, you hone in on the people around you and how they interact with others. As you may be aware, there is a lot of discussion in the Italian government and in the European Union around refugees and forced migration. I heard a lot of conversations on the topic with many negative connotations associated. I started to think about the overwhelming amount of sensory overload that you experience just when visiting a new country and the fact that people are judged just based on their country of origin or even their attire. This was a reality check for me. As a white woman in America, aside from rudimentary gender biases, I have never experienced any real discrimination. I started thinking about the American stereotypes associated with myself and my peers while in Europe (ex. stupid, loud, overweight and dressing badly), our reactions, and how these experiences are only a microscopic percentage of the prejudice that refugees and migrants experience both in Europe and the States every day. I came out of this study abroad experience with a better understanding of my own privilege and an even stronger will to actively advocate for the dismantlement of racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. Honestly, when people ask me what I learned on this trip, my first reaction is to discuss these topics and it has made some uncomfortable. Hell, it still makes me uncomfortable, but the first step to dismantling discrimination is to start talking about it and leaning into this uncomfort to enact change.
The second concept that I learned during my study abroad was the appreciation for other cultures, which in turn helped me to better identify my own social identity. In Italy, aside from their societal status values, they focus on interactions with people and relationships. Coming from Seattle where it’s rare for anyone to look up from their phone long enough to notice someone standing right next to them, Italy was a breath of fresh air for human interaction. When you walk down the cobblestone streets in Italy, people look at you, smile, greet you with a Buongiorno and actually acknowledge your presence. No one is in a rush to get past you and people aren’t on their phones constantly ignoring the world around them. At first, this change made me very uncomfortable because I wasn’t used to a world where eye contact longer than 7 seconds was normal. About two weeks in, I began to appreciate the connection this forges with the people around you. You feel more connected to the world around you as well and not the one within your technology. I came back to Seattle and was surprised to find that I missed this level of interaction. The experience has encouraged me to reach out and make connections with people around me. I realized a little acknowledgment in this busy world can make a big difference to your experience in it.
So, my final advice to those considering studying abroad is DO IT! Yes, it is very expensive, but consider reaching out to your advisors, financial aid advisors and the study abroad program advisors to learn about scholarships and aid. I promise that the amount of time you spend figuring out how to pay for it is completely outweighed by the amount of life changing experiences you gain. Additionally, the amount of time to commit can be intimidating, especially for those of us with full time careers, but I came back to my corporate job with a better appreciation for everyone around me and they have noticed. So, talk to your employer and see what flexibility or vacation options are available to you. Lastly, if I am able to, I will 100% study abroad again because I cannot accurately explain how different I feel and how much more connected with people and the world I feel. I have the international travel bug and I cannot wait for my next adventure.
Blog Post Three
Understanding cultural dynamics and how they affect business communications, has been a large focus of our course curriculum. Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture have aided me exponentially in making sense of my first week’s experiences in Italy. The concept has also guided me through the rest of my time here. Although this blog is not an academic review, I am going to go through each dimension, and explain how it relates to an experience I’ve had during this study abroad.
Individualism is the first cultural dimension and explains how a culture perceives the importance of the individual versus the collective society. A country with a high individualism score has citizens who focus on their own goals and dreams, rather than that of the society as a whole. The United States and Italy both have high individualism scores, with the U.S. coming in at 91 and Italy at 76. In Italy, as opposed to the U.S., there is a larger focus on relationship-building, and adhering to social norms. We were given a presentation by an Italian businessman, who explained that relationships are a large part of business here. Your success is dependent upon who you know and how they perceive you. Additionally, he mentioned that Italy has a “long way to go” when it comes to cultural and business diversity. Examples he listed were severe racial divides, a lack of female presence in the business realm, and the poor treatment of the LGBTQIA community.
The second cultural dimension I want to focus on is masculinity. In short, a high cultural masculinity score means that a society values being the “best,” as opposed to the more feminine view of one’s happiness being the main priority. To clarify, masculinity and femininity in this sense do not relate to gender. Italy has a high masculinity score of 70, in comparison to the United States’ score of 62. This can be seen in the way people dress, the cars they drive and the value they put on material objects, in relation to social status. I was able to see the difference in masculinity dynamics when visiting Venice, Florence and Rome. Florence and Rome place more emphasis on masculinity and material objects when it comes to business, versus Rome which seems to be more focused on historical preservation and family businesses. The difference in the north and south’s viewpoints can most likely be attributed to the fact that Italy only recently unified in 1870. We took a short excursion even further south to a small beach town called Anzio, where the material objects and power dynamics seemed to be almost non-existent. In Anzio, people literally let it all hang out and judgments become lost in the calming waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
In my opinion, Italy’s high masculinity score can be linked to their view on power distance. Power distance relates to the relationship and acceptance of control. Italy falls right in the middle of this dimension at 50, versus the United States at 40. Meaning that, although Italy values equality and individualism, there is definitely a larger emphasis on a social hierarchy. This power dynamic likely stems from the ancient times, when people were separated by class. This dynamic can be seen in relics such as the Coliseum and Roman Forum. It’s also clear in the way that people in Italy size everyone up. They begin by staring at your eyes and then work their way down in order to identify your place. This is not meant as offensive here, but merely the way that people determine how to communicate with you. If a person is not wearing the socially accepted clothing that demonstrates power, then they are treated as inferior.
I conducted a short experiment here in Rome, in regard to this power dynamic. As a woman in the U.S., I make the choice to not wear makeup and dress in clothing that makes me feel comfortable, rather than pay attention to the brand. Coming into Italy with this style, I found that people would often look at me and move on. While here, I’ve been told several times that I should really wear makeup. I decided to start wearing fancy clothes and makeup to see if I would be treated differently. So, I woke up early and played the part for three days. I was shocked to see the difference in communication. The same folks I walked by every morning on my way to the Rome Center, now greeted me with “Ciao” and more open body language. The restaurants and vendors were more friendly. It was a fascinating experiment and really shows how power dynamics still hold true in Italy.
The last three dimensions of culture are uncertainty avoidance, long term orientation and indulgence. I am not going to focus so heavily on these three because, although they do play a large part in the country’s culture, they are not so easily identified when you are immersed into the society. Italy’s uncertainty avoidance ranks pretty high at 75, in comparison to the U.S coming in at 46. This cultural dimension can be seen in the amount of laws, military, and police that are present throughout the country. Long term orientation is also very high in Italy. This dimension is clearly demonstrated in Italy’s long standing architectural structures, their acceptance to change, and the shared belief that more expensive items will outlast a cheaper solution. With this in mind, Italy is seen as a pragmatic culture with a long term orientation score of 61, in comparison to the U.S.’s normative score of 26. Finally, we touch on indulgence. Americans often perceive Italy to be a very indulgent society that prides themselves on food, sex and wine. Although the country does put a heavy emphasis on these, Italians also work very hard and then indulge at a slow pace. Thus, these pleasures are a large part of society, but are not consumed in excess. For example, Italians will drink a maximum of 2 glasses of wine when going out and do not go out with the goal of getting wasted. This ideology can be seen in their low indulgence score of 30, in comparison to the United States’ score of 68.
With only a week left in Italy, I am excited to write about my full experience, and ending view of the country. It seems as if every time I make an observation here, I turn the corner and find something that changes my mind and opens my eyes to something new.
Blog Post Two
Greetings from the Eternal City of Rome, Italy! I have officially been immersed into the culture of Italy for two weeks now. My time abroad began with a train ride from Rome to Venice. Along the ride, I encountered many people who influenced my initial impressions of the country. The first person I met was a sixty-one year old man from Austria. He sat across from me on the train ride and we delved into conversation as soon as the train started moving. Mr. A was newly retired and taking a personal trip across Europe. We discussed everything from global politics to cultural norms. The conversation flowed so freely that, by the end of the ride, it was as if I’d been given a Ted Talk on European politics, current affairs and historical background. The viewpoints he presented, and the genuine conversation, encouraged me to open up to as many people as I can while here in Italy.
Arriving in Venice, I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding me. I subsequently received a call from my first AirBnB hosts, Beatrice and Fabio, who guided me to our meeting point at Campo Santa Margherita. I will never forget that first walk through Venice. The feeling of actually being in the place you have dreamed of your entire life, and having it exceed all of your expectations, is indescribable. By the time I met Beatrice and Fabio, I was already in love with Venice; their company only deepened this adoration. I was given a small room that overlooked the canals, a list of the least-trafficked cultural sites, and assurance that Venice was an incredibly safe place for a solo woman to navigate. I only spent two days in Venice, but in that short time I discovered a culture that was truly magical. Venice is the only place I have ever been where there are no cars, no crime, and every single citizen exudes warmth. As Arthur Symons once said, “A realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him.”
I spent the next few days travelling through Florence, which had a completely different vibe than Venice. In Florence, I had my first experience with materialism and intense power dynamics. At the time, I didn’t know how to navigate through this kind of atmosphere. Sporting my flannel shirt and relaxed disposition, it’s safe to say that I felt very out of place. Overwhelmed with the culture shock in Florence, I stuck to the historical aspects of the city. I fell in love with the art of the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia, and Florence Cathedral. The incredible architecture seen from Pazzale Michelangelo and Ponte Vecchio also took my breath away. The two days I spent in Florence, proved that I was present in a place with immense history and beauty.
The cultural shock I felt in Florence continued as I made my way to Rome. On September 7th, I met up with our study abroad group for the first time in Italy. We made our way to the University of Washington’s sponsored apartments, settled in for a bit, and quickly succumbed to the exhaustion of travelling. After our nap, my roommates and I made our way out into the city. There, we had our first dinner with the entire study abroad group, and it was incredibly refreshing to discuss the experiences we all had on our solo adventures. Everyone had similar experiences with the difference in importance of appearance and class in Italy, as opposed to Washington. We spent the next few days exploring Rome on foot and discovering nearby parks and plazas. Having the weekend to ourselves helped immensely for the discussion on personal and social identity during our first day of class. This conversation acknowledged the importance of understanding how our culture affects who we are and how we react to being the minority in a new environment.
The common themes presented in this conversation were the difference in expectations, the amount of passion people have for everything they do, the sense of community, and the acceptance of individual responsibility. Time constraints seem almost non-existent here, as people walk at a slower pace, savor every meal, and always stop to enjoy the little things like coffee or good conversation. Passion can be seen in every aspect of Italian culture. There’s a sense of pride every time locals of this community speak, and they do not complain about things such as work stresses or silly arguments. Instead, they take immediate action and then move on with their day. I admire this so much because in America, we tend to internalize our emotions until they explode out of us. Pride can also be seen in their sense of community and togetherness. People gather in the squares for hours just talking, letting their kids play, and actually engaging with the local community. The amount of people glued to their phones is minimal, and people acknowledge you whenever you pass by.
Finally, I bring up the concept of individual responsibility because, in Italy, it seems as if you are expected to pay attention and take care of yourself. Examples of this are the relationships between drivers and pedestrians. There are no established lanes in Rome and drivers can basically go where they want on the streets, including alleys, cobblestone walkways, and anywhere that doesn’t have a barrier. What this means is that each driver needs to pay very close attention, and each pedestrian needs to ensure that a car isn’t coming because, if something does happen, whoever wasn’t paying attention would be at fault.
We are currently studying Hofstede’s cultural dimensions of a society and applying the dimensions to the historical sites we are seeing every day. More on this to come as we delve into the dimensions in the following week.
Blog Post One: Pre-Departure Post
I take off for Italy this Saturday. For the last week, my brain has gone back and forth between pure excitement of the amazing experiences coming my way and massive anxiety of being alone in a foreign country for the first time. The past six months of day dreaming about cobblestone walkways and floating through the canals of Venice are currently being combatted by a sense of dread as the departure date approaches. I bring this up because I think it is important to acknowledge the almost paralyzing fear that can come with embarking upon new experiences. Nevertheless, I know that once I touch down in Rome and step into the Leonardo da Vinci airport courtyard, just being present in the history, art, culture and sheer grandiosity of Rome will relinquish any anxiety I am feeling.
I have a shuttle set to take me from the airport to my first hotel. Following my anticipated post flight nap, my first goal is to locate a Caffè and try authentic Italian espresso. I am going a week prior to the start of our study abroad and plan to spend a few nights in Venice and Florence. I will be hopping on the ItaliaRail, the national rail system, the day after I arrive and heading north to Venice. The sceneries along the way are supposed to be incredible and I am beyond excited to take as many pictures as I can. This blog will be sure to have a recap of the train voyages as I have heard that frequent train travelers love to chat. This will be interesting as I do not speak any Italian. I have decided to stay in Air B&Bs while in Venice and Florence. After researching the best experiences in Italy, there seemed to be more value in staying with an Air B&B host rather than a hostel. The price was not very different, and my rooms are in the city centers within walking distance of all major museums and galleries. I am a nervous though as there are several strikes taking place within the Italian transportation departments. I received notification that there is a strike scheduled for the day I return to Rome to meet with our study abroad group. This may present a challenge as I need to figure out if I need to go back a day early.
On September 7th, the real fun starts as I meet with all of my study abroad mates at the UW Rome Center. The amount of history, ancient sites, experiences and local lecturers we are packing into two weeks is going to be absolutely incredible. When I travel, I prefer the go, go, go lifestyle and I can tell that this study abroad program is going to be one of those experiences. When looking for some photos to post for this blog related to Roman culture, I was overcome with a sense of just how beautiful everything is. From the architecture to the streets, this is going to be a life altering experience and I cannot wait to share it with you!