It’s always so tempting — and so reductive — to paint entire cultures with a broad brush. Usually, I resist. But in this case, I’m going all-in: Italy is a land of extroverts. As an introvert, I both love it…and, on rare occasions, hate it.
Recently I flew home from London on British Airways. Normally those nine-hour flights are a sedate affair, but this time was different. The plane was loaded up with a big group of Italians, heading to Seattle for an Alaska cruise. They rolled onto the plane with fanfare, jamming bags every which way into the overhead compartments, gesticulating wildly, really making a meal out of finding their seats. A couple of hours into the flight, I couldn’t get to the bathrooms because a half-dozen people were jamming the aisles. At first, I thought they were all waiting for the lavatory. Nope…they were simply socializing after dinner.
I’m sure Italy has plenty of introverts. I’ve met some shy, retiring Italians. But not many. To be fair, I suspect that Italian introverts have to adapt to their outgoing society, so they learn to do a good impression of extroverts. (I live in Seattle — a.k.a. Introvert City, USA — where it’s very easy to give yourself over to your loner instincts. Italians don’t have that option.)
For evidence that this is an extrovert’s paradise, you need only walk down the street — any street, anywhere in Italy — at about 6 or 7 p.m. What you’ll find is entire neighborhoods out and about, strolling, greeting each other warmly, sharing an ice cream cone or a cocktail. In Italy, every night is a party. It’s no wonder those Italians on my flight got so fidgety somewhere over Iceland.
Italian culture and society are organized around social interaction. The centerpiece of any Italian town is the piazza — the community living room and meeting place. German towns are organized around the Marktplatz — the market square, a place of commerce. But Italian squares are not designed strictly for commerce. They’re designed for socializing. After dark, the Martkplatz is closed up tight and completely dead. But the piazza is just waking up.
Among Italians, social intelligence is off the charts. I have Italian friends who can size me up and intuit exactly what I’m thinking with one quick glance. They have a sixth sense for people. They get it. I love doing guidebook research in Italy, because what is often the hardest part of my job in other places — explaining that I’m updating a book and just need to ask a few questions — is instantly understood and accommodated.
Have you ever been in Italy, and someone starts talking to you in fast-paced Italian, and you protest that you don’t understand — and they keep going? The more you apologize for not understanding, the more you realize that…no, wait…you do, in fact, somehow understand. Not everything, but a little. Just enough. It’s not that Italians don’t realize that you don’t speak their language. It’s that they don’t care. Because they instinctively grasp that communication is about more than words.
Charmed as I am by Italy, I’ve gotta be honest: It can be tough to be an introvert here. In a big, boisterous gathering, I feel like a fish out of water. From time to time, I need to escape to my hotel room (the introvert’s final refuge). The problem is, in Italy, you can usually hear everything going on in adjacent rooms — thanks to minimal soundproofing, paper-thin doors, and echoey hallways. For years I chalked this up to cheap construction. But on a recent trip, trying to get to sleep around midnight and hearing an animated conversation echoing through the stone staircase just outside my room, it dawned on me: Perhaps, out of a deep-seated drive to be among others, Italians don’t mind hearing other people. Perhaps they find it…comforting.
For an introvert, this can be wearying. Simply put, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever alone here. (This may seem like no big deal to extroverts…but my people understand.)
On the other hand, I’ve come to appreciate the way Italy forces me to stretch my boundaries. Italians have a gift for getting you out of your shell — which I don’t mind doing, even if I need a little encouragement. Rick (a classic extrovert) has a mantra: “Extroverts have more fun. If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make things happen. ” Easy for him to say. However, I have taken those words to heart since my first big European backpacking trip in 1999. And I find that in Italy, becoming a temporary extrovert comes very naturally. And, sure enough, it’s more fun.
At the end of the day, Italy is a package deal — you take the bountiful good with the occasional bad. And the extraversion of Italy’s wonderful people is something I’ll very happily accept as part of that package. It’s right up there with great art, great pasta, and great gelato: great people.