Traveling outside of your own cultural comfort zone is always a daunting experience. Many who do, don’t seem to realize this until they come across cultural differences almost too extreme to bear. It goes without saying that any tourist traveling outside their own culture should not under any circumstance automatically assume that what is normal or acceptable for them will hold true with the culture that they are visiting. A few recent run-ins with American tourists have compelled me to highlight one of the biggest cultural differences between Italian and American culture: Customer Service! Now before it sounds like I’m really bearing down on Americans in particular I do want to stress that American tourists are, overall, some of the most courteous and fun-loving tourists in Italy! Now on to the exception…
First and foremost, the definition of customer service varies worldwide, but the disparity of US customer service policies and those of Italy spans a distance larger then the ocean we physically cross. The American version of “100% customer is right unless proven wrong by a terms and conditions they probably electronically agreed to” scenario is null and void in Italy. Also American customers tend to have the idea that making a big stink will tend to get them exempt from their electronic agreement, though inevitably putting themselves on the hypothetical “spit in that one’s food” company list. Yes these do exist. I’ve worked for an International travel company, and there were specific customers who where marked as code X (avoid at all costs).
My friend’s recent experience serving American clients at a car rental agency specifically addresses why these two pillars of U.S. customer service etiquette do not work in Italian culture. Customers are considered just as fallible as the workers that serve them, therefore a customer’s version of a scenario is not viewed as correct until proven wrong, but rather debatable until proven otherwise. The workers do tend to know what they are doing and are versed on the rules and regulations stipulated by their companies, bureaucratic offices notwithstanding. Therefore they are seen to be more knowledgeable about the situation at hand over the customer.
Example of how this plays out: Long story made incredibly short; tourists had rented a car which had been freshly cleaned, filled with gas, and ready to go. Now given the preparation of the car, it would have been driven around Florence for all these maintenance purposes. The clients rented the car and half way to their destination, they got a flat tire. They returned to the agency, accused the people behind the desk for purposely giving them the flat, demanded a whole refund, and refused to pay for the tire they busted. Now everybody knows that flats happen. They are horrible, but far from unheard of. Due to the no insurance contract they had signed when renting the car, they were responsible for the flat, and would be charged a fee for replacing it. Now my expected reaction to this might be unhappy and somewhat uncooperative, but not anything close to what actually happened. After hours of trying to shout their way out of the issue, they finally pulled the red card. What is the red card, you ask? It is the “You can’t treat me this way, I am from the United States” response. This response has absolutely no meaning, because your nationality has no bearing on them enforcing their rules and regulations. It also implies that you think you are better than the rules and everyone else who does follow them. So just about how far will this statement get you? Further back from whence you started! Clerks, waiters, and shop assistants alike will become completely non responsive, unhelpful, and all together ignore you after a blow-out like that. A calm demeanor and reasonable requests tend to be met with cooperation and helpful additional information.
Of course this is a rare occurrence. The majority of American tourists follow the Golden Rule, and it tends to lead to good experiences for both sides. Kindness and respect are universal. Americans, as I have stated, are particularly regarded as good tourists here. This may be due to their easy smiles, effusive thank yous, or the fact that apparently our accents when attempting to speak Italian are considered “cute”. On the overall we get a good rating, but just be aware that your food might not arrive all together, take-out boxes are regarded as embarrassing, and that going with the flow is your best bet, even if you don’t know what the flow exactly is!
Sit back, see the sites, drink the wine, and enjoy!
Have a cultural blunder to share, or some sound advice earned the hard way? Please share! Traveling is also a great learning experience!