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Efficiency or Humanity?

Domani, forget domani
Let’s live for now and anyhow who needs domani?

“Forget Domani” by Frank Sinatra

Even though we have been living in Italy for more than four years, we often get tripped up – but if we would listen to the classic songs, we wouldn’t make the same mistake over and over.

Our American upbringing seems unwilling to let us give in to the Italian mindset – that anything in life can be deferred to another day – so we are fooled – and fooled repeatedly. Not that we weren’t given fair warning. The very first week here, we went to city hall to meet with an official about processing some forms. We were told the person was out to and to come back the next day as he would be there. He was not – he had gone fishing – so we made an appointment for 3:00pm the following day. We arrived at city hall 2:55, with documents in hand, ready and eager to conduct our business. The entire building was closed (still have no idea why).

Now I should be slightly embarrassed to admit this, but we have since then, repeated a similar scene too many times to recount. You would think we would learn, but I doubt we ever will. Many a time, I have sat in an empty concert hall, waiting for it to begin and no one shows up for another 45 minutes. Not even the performers. The stage is often occupied with only chairs in disarray.

Where’s the show?

We have had several ‘appointments’ at the provincial offices. The first time we were given an appointment for 9am, we arrived to discover that really meant the doors were opened.  Each time, we waited multiple hours, standing up as there was no seating.  I have often advised prospective expats: “Learn to laugh and laugh a lot. After you are done with the crying.”

The culture has also left us flabbergasted in our dealings with people in executive positions. All our lives, we have been used to personal assistants managing their boss’s calendar and protecting them from random intrusions. In higher level positions, there are multiple layers – the automated directory that gets you to the receptionist, who then gets you to the secretary, and only if the secretary thinks it important enough, do you get to the boss.

I’m sorry, you aren’t important enough to talk to the boss.

Here, we have sat in director’s office and watched while employees suddenly barge in through the door and interrupt the proceedings with some question or signature required. At times, the frequency of disruption is almost comedic, like a vaudeville routine involving doors being flung open every few seconds. We just sit there, nonplussed and – at the same time – oddly entertained.

We have concluded from these experiences that there is a particular profession missing from Italian culture – that of a coordinator. Someone with the job description to manage calendars, organize events, and handle logistics. This position (aka personal assistant, aka secretary, aka receptionist, aka organizer) has been a key to making the workday operate efficiently in the USA, protecting the executive from all but the most important subjects. From what we can tell, there seems to be no such person in the Italian workplace. As a result, chaos reigns. Sometimes, it’s not unlike being in a Marx Brothers movie.

ca. 1930-1950 — The Marx Brothers – or a modern day Italian CEO – who can say?

We find ourselves straddling two cultures with very different mentalities. American industry and commerce are known for efficiency and productivity. The American model of organizing tasks and scheduling is firmly ingrained in both of us after a lifetime of living in it. Our default mode is to engage the same way, in every aspect of our lives. We are fueled by a subconscious drive to get multiple things done. Like many Americans, we have always had our daily “To Do” lists – I’ve quite given them up, but my wife (who runs much of our daily lives) still has her lists, in an effort to stay on top of the multitudinous projects she somehow manages to juggle.

American organizations owe much of their efficiency to the pathbreaking work of Frederick Winslow Taylor over 110 years ago who showed businesses, industries, government, and hospitals how to better manage their work processes. Productivity was vastly increased. Famously, the U.S. built 100,000 aircraft in a single year – more than 250 planes every day – during World War II. Clearly, for cataclysmic events the American model works superbly.

Frederick Winslow Taylor – the reason we have efficiency experts

But now we live in a societal construct that says: “Relax. Calm down. Nothing is that important. Whatever it is can wait until later.” Not such terrible advice either. I’ve certainly found it less stressful and less angst-ridden. So, gradually, we have learned to take it easy – have a nice long lunch in the meantime. By the second year, I had given up making To Do lists entirely – my wife still has a hard time of it – but she does say they are “shorter lists”.

However, she did invent our new “Rule of Three” that we live by for running errands:  You certainly can get the first thing done, probably you can get the second thing done, you’ll be lucky to get the third thing done – forget about a fourth.

We have also found a definite upside to this more relaxed culture – without the usual myriad of gatekeepers, assistants directors, and minions, we receive services directly from the professional responsible. For example, when we need to see our doctor, we walk in and see her directly, with no intervening steps or people involved. She records notes into her laptop and calls the pharmacy to have a prescription filled and writes it out as well, for us to pick up on our walk home. It’s all very personal and sociable. Despite a prevalent myth in America that socialized medicine is impersonal and bureaucratic, the type of medical service we have received has been attentive, personalized, and caring. The lesser degree of organization perhaps allows for the more human touch.

No nurse or secretary in sight.

Italy is notorious for its Kafkaesque bureaucracy – and we can personally attest that it can indeed be baffling. However, over time, we have learned how to “address” the officials at the counter, whether it be the post office or the provincial police. Most are fiercely proud of their jobs and respond to recognition and kindness just like most people do. Consequently, we usually get good service. We have cautioned other Americans not to display a sense of entitlement, or rudeness, as that is almost guaranteed to result in a disagreeable outcome.

Moreover, in the Italian system, officials are given some latitude in interpreting rules to fit circumstances of a place or a person. Unlike American services, it’s not simply a matter of filling out a form and getting an approval. The official can interpret the rules with leniency or strictness. Many Americans seem to have a tough time with that, thinking that something nefarious must be going on. It’s not. It’s essentially a short-term social compact: you respect me and I will respect you.

So, one might ask: which culture is better? The one that displays efficiency or the one that displays humanity?

I leave that for you to decide.

<strong>Mark Hinshaw </strong>BArch MUP FAIA FAICP
Mark Hinshaw BArch MUP FAIA FAICP

Mark had a 30-year career as a journalist and author, writing hundreds of articles on urban development and publishing four books on urban design. Mark now lives in the ancient hilltown of Santa Vittoria in Matenano in the region of Le Marche, Italy and shares his italian adventures in his blog.

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