“But how are businesses still in business?” My father-in-law asked, “doesn’t everyone just lie to get everything for free?”
“Because complaining about stuff has consequences and people could lose their jobs?” I responded, confused, “I mean, I guess dirtbags do it.”
“This would never work in Italy. The business would go broke!”
“If they had good customer service they’d go broke?” I asked.
“Yes! Everyone would lie to get it for free and nobody would pay for it anymore. It would be stupid for the business” he laughed.
My father-in-law is a man who loves rules, is an upstanding citizen, and a retired detective. This is a man who runs his home like a military camp, and yet he was thrilled that his son had been “furbo,” by getting a discount at the hotel. When I told him that Francesco wasn’t doing anything clever or sneaky, he was simply letting the manager know there were problems, and that in the US it’s normal to do that but not to exploit it, his mind was nearly blown.
I’m not sure that another scenario could better sum up the Italian sub-cultural phenomenon of Furbizia than that conversation. By definition, Furbizia is basically a quality of “achieving goals using ingenious tricks,” according to the Italian dictionary. Clever, cunning, sly, are some other synonyms. One could also call it being a massive douche bag, but often in Italy, within certain groups, it’s considered smart.
A common perception is that the person being sly is a badass whereas the person being screwed over is a moron who deserves it for not paying attention or not exploiting the opportunity themselves. If you think about it, it’s a genius way to be a dick and take zero responsibility for it. Sadly, it contributes to a cultural layer of manipulation and distrust. The sly trick can be as small as making a business agreement with someone then “accidentally” fudging it, feigning ignorance when caught, or it can be as large as Bettino Craxi who famously embezzled taxpayer’s money and then fled to Tunisia. How clever. It’s not necessarily lying or cheating, rather, exploiting possibilities. It is a game of who can cut all the angles or out sneak their opponent and by opponent I mean the rest of the world.
I’ve been overcharged for drinks, screwed in business deals (also recently, note: we bloggers all talk, bad idea to play sneaky with our crowd, asshole businesses), ass-raped by landladies, all in the game of furbizia. It’s not uncommon, especially if you’re foreign and speak Italian like a drunk toddler. It’s a lot more difficult to pull one over on a local because they are so damn prepared for it that they are constantly on guard. Even my eight year old niece is skeptical of the world already. My husband seems to think that everyone is trying to sneak one over on him and unfortunately it’s because people often are. He’s the kind of guy where someone will try to give him a free sample in Costco and he’ll back away nervously wondering what they want in return. When Francesco and I first started dating he wondered if I had ulterior motives, that I was furbo because “nobody is this honest, you’re trying to trick me.” I actually thought he was insane until I noticed that a lot of his friends approached the world with the same doubt. It isn’t to say that everyone in Italy is trying to screw each other, that’s not true at all, for example most of our friends couldn’t be further from this type of behavior, but sometimes it can feel like the whole country is trying to bend you over (without lube).
The “art,” of furbizia is basically the art of pushing all the boundaries and some people are pros. You’ve seen it before in every soccer game where an Italian player will throw themselves to the ground and pretend to be injured to buy time. Francesco’s teammates used to do that during games and the Europeans from the other teams wanted to kill them. “Just play an honest game mate!” they’d yell. The Italians would smile after the match, “Did you see what I did,” proud of their contribution to the win. It’s a bit different in soccer than the other examples but the idea is still the same.
Every country has liars and thieves, assholes, and douchebags. In the US we have it all, probably more of it, but it seems a bit different. In the US these sneaky types are usually either blatant criminals or involved in white collar crime (arguably much worse) but I’ve never worried that a Starbucks employee might over charge me for a coffee so they could pocket the change (not because Americans are better people, but because people would lose their goddamn jobs and their minds. And surveillance cameras of the all-knowing big brother are pervasive in American culture). Until now, I probably just gave everyone an awesome idea. Great. I’m onto you, Starbucks.
You would think that after so many years i’d be used to it but I’m not sure that’s possible. Not because I’m gullible or naive but because I’m lazy. I don’t have the energy to check, double check, triple check to see if people are pulling one over on me or not. If I do notice, it pisses me off and I’ll end that relationship immediately (especially business relationships) but I can’t seem to get into the mindset of wondering constantly if there’s a loophole to take advantage of or if I’m being screwed. It just seems exhausting, although, if I did hop on the bandwagon of furbizia I might save a lot of euros here or there, and in a culture of the cunning, with politicians playing the same game, and economies failing, we could all use an extra buck and an extra boost.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a COSI post! The fun never ends! Check out what my fellow bloggers had to say about the same subject.
Girl In Florence: Why Being Furbo In Italy Is Anything But Cool
Rick Zullo: What Does It Mean To Be Furbo?
Unwilling Expat: Italy’s Cheating Heart
Englishman In Italy: Furbizia
Sex, Lies, And Nutella: Tourists Beware Fighting Furbizia In Italy
Married to Italy: Furbizia- a blessing or a curse
The Florence Diaries: A life lesson in Con-Artistry