Customer Service – Italy vs US

I’ve mentioned this topic in several different pieces, but I think it’s important enough to have its own blog.

To reiterate:  Most of the businesses we see in our area are small, family owned and run…..whether they’re restaurants or clothing shops or the little grocery stores called alimentari that were surely the inspiration for our 7-Elevens. Even most of the hotels in the smaller towns are family owned.

If you go to a hotel regularly in the US, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see the same face twice. In Umbria, you would become alarmed if you didn’t find the person you expected behind the counter because it could only mean that they were dead. You would probably know them by name, as well as the names of their children. They would have your passport information on file and know which room you preferred. The closest we get to that in the US are our B&B’s.

The same goes for restaurants. The waiter in the first restaurant where I ate in Orvieto 21 years ago is still there. It’s not a place we go to often, so I’ve never gotten friendly with the man, but I’m sure that when we do eat there, it clicks in the back of his mind, as it does in mine, that we’ve been seeing each other for an awfully long time.

The service people in Italy have pride in what they do; it’s a respected career, not something to fill the time and wallet while waiting for “real” life to begin. Whether or not they are a family member, they still treat you like a guest in their home, because where they work is their home. And like a good guest, you should give them the courtesy of a greeting when you enter, and patience if they can’t get to you immediately.

Occasionally, however, you will run into a family member who truly should NOT be in the service business. We have one near us who is legendary for his lack of hospitality. Anyone reading this who has spent time around Orvieto knows this man well. Upon entering, he will immediately make you feel like an unwelcomed guest who has ruined his day by your very presence in his restaurant. His body language lets you know that he considers you totally unworthy to eat the delicious food that comes from his kitchen, and if he could, he would return to watching TV with his back to you in hopes that when he turned around again, you would be gone. Fortunately, the rest of his family members are incredibly nice and the food is so good that the restaurant warrants the return customers and packed house that it has most days.

While this man is the exception to the nice-people-in-small-business rule, his ilk can be easily found in the larger chain stores – particularly those in the shopping malls that seem to have mysteriously appeared along the autostrada recently. I’ve never found the kind of department store in Italy that I’ve seen in the US, England, France or Germany, but the closest is a chain called Coin. I’ve been to Coins from Torino to Palermo, and not once have I ever gotten the correct information about whatever I was looking for. If they are out of something, it would never occur to them to see if more might be coming in at some future date, or if they have an alternative. It seems their training stopped right after: “We’re out of those”. In the US, department stores have a disarming number of people whose only job is to ask if they can help you. At Coin, as soon as the sales people see customers, they scurry away to an agreed-upon hiding place, where they stay until the customers get tired of waiting and leave.

Large grocery stores are the exception to the big-store rudeness; people there are always helpful and they know what they’re doing.

So….what’s the bottom line on all of this?

– Smaller places are more fun than big ones.

– Be courteous to the people in small businesses. They work long hours in their shops and appreciate a greeting and patience.

– You will probably be disappointed in a large store, so if you must go, set your expectations low.

– You can raise your expectations up if the large store is a super market.

– It is possible to overlook rudeness, but only if there’s REALLY good food at the end.

Which just goes to show you that somehow, whenever you’re talking about Italy, it almost always comes down to food……

Cultural Differences

It’s always helpful to participate in a few of the cultural differences you’ll find when visiting another country — particularly if they’re easy to do…..not something like having to cheerfully eat sheep eyeballs. Here are just a few easy-to-adopt suggestions for Italy.

Actually, this first one is for both Italy and France: Acknowledge the shopkeeper when you enter her/his shop. Unlike in the US, where you’ll probably never see the person waiting on you again, most of the people behind the counter are the owners — particularly in the smaller towns — and they’ll be there day after day. It really is their second home, so be as courteous as you’d be if you were their guest, and give them a hello when you enter and a goodbye when you leave.

Restaurant etiquette #1: Don’t just sit down. Wait for someone to direct you to a table.

Restaurant etiquette #2: The first question you’ll be asked is what kind of water you’d like. They do not ask IF you’d like water. The answers are naturale (still water) or frizzante (sparkling). (You could also say gassata, which means the same thing.) Since these are both mineral waters, acqua minerale is not a helpful answer. Unlike in Germany or Switzerland, where we’ve paid up to $10 for a bottle of water, you seldom pay more than $2 in Italy. I suppose you could always say you don’t want any water, or just a glass of acqua di rubinetto (tap water), but….well…..it’s not often done…..and aren’t we talking here about cultural differences you want to practice?

Restaurant etiquette #3: Just like the shops in the smaller towns where the owners work all the time, the restaurants are also mostly family-run. You will often see 1 person doing the job that would be done by 3 or 4 people in the US. So be patient. The same goes with the food. Mamma or nonna might be alone in the kitchen churning out all the meals. Good as she is – it’s impossible for her to have the plates for a table of 4 come out at the same time……

Restaurant etiquette #3-A: ……And since you should eat your meal at the proper temperature, it means people should start as soon as the food arrives and not wait for everyone to be served. I know it seems impolite to us, but to Italians, it’s even more impolite to disrespect your meal by not eating it as it should be eaten.

Restaurant etiquette #3-B: When I said “proper temperature” in the previous paragraph, I should point out that Italian food is normally neither very hot nor very cold. You MIGHT burn the roof of your mouth on pizza cheese, but that would be the only real possibility. Even coffee will be served so you can drink it now rather than having to wait 5 minutes to let it cool down. And as for chilled foods – I’ve seldom had either my white wine or my acqua frizzante as cold as I like them….not that I’m complaining. “Moderation” is the key word when it comes to “proper temperature” for eating…..

…..And “moderation” is also the word when it comes to drinking. If someone is loud and drunk, there’s at least an 80% chance the person is American, and a 99% chance they’re not Italian. Italians have been drinking since they were children tasting Uncle Giovanni’s homemade wine at family dinners. It is a part of everyday life, and they respect it as such. With our history of restrictive drinking laws, our young people often go wild once they hit Italy. If there’s a broken bottle in the street, there are probably American fingerprints on it. While American youth often look at drinking too much as being the measurement of how much fun they’re having, Italians learn early that being drunk is brutta figura, which loosely means appearing in a way that will be looked down upon – and that’s something NO Italian wants.

Last on today’s list is Lane Discipline. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but it won’t hurt to remind you that on the road, you pass on the left, drive on the right. You should NOT get in the left lane and clog traffic for miles behind you. If you aren’t actively in the process of passing someone, stay on the right.

So — I don’t think any of these nods to Italian culture fall into the eating-sheep-eyes category,  In fact, now that I’ve re-read them, I see that it’s more like saying “please” and “thank you”.  Maybe your mother really was right:  it’s all about good manners.