Many years ago I was passing through the charming town of Castellina-in-Chianti, and my travel partner wanted to buy some cherries that he saw displayed outside a small store. I offered to pay while he wandered off to find an appropriate lunch spot.
When I went into the shop, there was only 1 customer buying a few vegetables, and 2 women behind the counter. I expected to be out in less than 2 minutes. Unfortunately, the customer told the woman who was waiting on her that she was planning to make a soup. This was the signal for both of the women behind the counter to start discussing recipes. Exactly how was the customer planning to make her soup? Had she ever considered using X, asked the first shopkeeper. The second pooh-poohed the first one’s suggestion and offered one of her own that came from her grandmother’s treasured recipe. I politely cleared my throat….I shuffled my feet….I tried everything short of screaming “I JUST WANT TO PAY FOR SOME FRIGGIN’ CHERRIES”, but I’m not even sure that would have gotten their attention, because they were SO engulfed in sharing their soup stories. And then as luck would have it, another local woman came in, heard the conversation and offered tips from her own recipe. The shopkeepers’ parting gift to the customer who had brought them so much pleasure was to tuck into her bag, along with her vegetables, a bunch of the fresh herbs that they believed belonged in the soup. It seemed to take forever, but I did finally get out of the store with my cherries.
That happened a long time ago, and yet I’ve had the same scene repeated over and over again. Unless it is a very savvy shop, everyone behind the counter will wait together on one customer at a time. The exception to this rule is if they only speak Italian and you only speak English. In that case, they’ll shove their best English-speaking person to wait on you, while the rest of them will group around the Italian speaking customers….one at a time
Then there is the packaging. Let’s say you’re buying some pills at the farmacia. They will wrap the box (pills usually don’t come in a bottle) like it’s a precious birthday gift. The sides are carefully taped shut, and at the ends, the paper is neatly squared, folded and fixed with more tape. It doesn’t matter that there’s a line of people behind you; you cannot leave without properly wrapped pills.
This might make it seem like, at the very worst, you’ll have the sales person/people all to yourself at some point – and that’s true UNLESS the phone rings. Italians MUST answer their phones. Whether it’s someone in a shop, or someone in a government office — they MUST stop talking to you and take care of the caller on the other end of the phone. And when I say “take care” – I don’t mean telling the person they’re with someone else and promising to call them back. No – they must solve that person’s problem immediately, no matter how long it takes. The fact that you had their attention first is irrelevant.
Part of the problem is the fact that the concept of answering machines for businesses has not really caught on. So if they don’t answer the phone, it could seem as though they weren’t at their post, doing their job. And as for needing to solve someone else’s problem before finishing yours — Italians love to help people — even if the advice they give is totally wrong. You will almost never hear an Italian use the words “I don’t know”. I’m pretty sure they believe they would be rude if they did not come up with some kind of long-winded answer, but it would never occur to them that they’re being rude to you by not helping you first since you were there first.
Of course, once you learn the peculiarities of Italian customer service, you can work around them if they annoy you. Or you can relax and enjoy the story value your latest shopping expedition will have when you tell your American friends. Your Italian friends, on the other hand, will sigh…..wondering why you seem to be so amused at such proper and natural behavior. They’ll give you that look that says “OF COURSE things are done this way”, and you’ll know that you’ve just given them still another reason to think Americans have so many — hmmmm…..there’s that word again — peculiarities.