La bella figura rules Italian behavior in every aspect of life—from the way you dress to the way to comport yourself and the way you speak, and, above all, table manners—all make up the impression you give others. La bella figura is a uniquely Italian concept of living with dignity and difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
There are no rules for what makes a good impression, la bella figura. Giovanni Della Casa (1503-56) wrote a set rules in his Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior to present to his nephew as a guide to simple decency. As important as acting upon polite behavior is learning what behavior to avoid. The successful man, must combine an exterior grace with a necessary social conformity. Anything that could give offense or reveal vulgar thoughts should be avoided.
What are these behaviors that make la bella figura? In the 2015 eBook release by Project Gutemberg, J. E. Spingarn describes that the Galateo’s real foundation of good manners is in the desire to please. “This desire is the aim or end of all manners, teaching us alike to follow what pleases others and to avoid what displeases them.”
These behaviors run the gamut from personal cleanliness to how to fold a table napkin. These include many dos and don’ts.
The “dos” “don’ts” seem obvious, but it is alarming how often people violate these basic rules of social behavior, and it behooves all of us to review them.
Among the Don’ts:
- Don’t interrupt someone speaking.
- Don’t speak loudly
- Don’t pick your nose or teeth in public
- Don’t eat with your mouth open
- Don’t cough, sneeze or yawn in someone’s face
- Don’t fall asleep in company
- Don’t turn your back to your neighbor
- Don’t get so close to a person as to breathe in his face
- Don’t be careless about the way you sit
- Don’t be too ceremonious or too servile
- Don’t make chewing, lip-smacking noises with your food
- When you blow your nose, do not look at your snots
- When at a banquet, don’t sit turned to the person on your right or left giving your back to the person sitting next to you on the opposite side.
This list is by no means complete, but you get the idea. These manners of behavior may sound obvious and laughable but think of how many people you know who are guilty of one or more such social infractions.
The list continues, but you get the idea. Now for the Dos:
Italians use formal language when speaking to strangers or to people in a higher-level position, such as the boss. The singular pronoun “you” has two forms, the informal tu (you), used when speaking with a friend, and the formal lei (which does not have an equivalent in English) when speaking with a stranger. To use the informal tu in a situation that calls for the formal lei is a gross error of social ethics and will make la brutta figura, give the bad impression.
- Cleanliness is foremost in manners and predates Biblical times. In certain ancient religions cleanliness related to spiritual purification. Despite the oft repeated phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” some clergymen insist that the church never objected to bathing “provided one indulged in it out of necessity and not for the sake of pleasure.” However, cleanliness in Della Casa’s Renaissance was a mere act to please others and to insure social status.
- When in a supermarket or in one of the many popular farmer markets wear a plastic glove, supplied in any markets, when selecting the produce. To touch food in the bin or shelf with bare hands is considered impolite and will give occasion la brutta figura, the bad impression.
Through all the many rules of dos and don’ts it is significant to notice that Italians are a contradiction in themselves. Speaking loudly and shouting across the street is a common practice in many towns and villages. They have little patience for keeping their place in line without an audible annoyance and will wear flip flops and spaghetti-strap knit tops without sense of style.
Every town and country has its own code of social behavior. When traveling to a foreign country, it befits one to learn a bit of the cultural code of ethics to avoid a reputation attributed to a whole flock of geese rather than the goose or, worse, offending the people of that country by a wrong gesture. “The Ugly American” is a phrase popularized by the title of a 1958 book by Eugene Burdick, which gave a blistering account of Americans abroad who remain insensitive to other cultures.
- Hand gestures, too, have different meanings in different countries. Joining the thumb with the index finger in America means “OK,” but in other parts of the world it has a scatological connotation and is insulting.
Today Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo is universally accepted as the standard code of social ethics with the latest printing as recent as 2016. La bella figura is best understood as the desired extrinsic value of a character that produces admiration by others. It is superficial and yet all important because, as the saying goes, first impressions last a long time. For a more recent study on manners, America has Emily Post’s Etiquette.
As with everything, rules of social behavior change with time and culture. Be sure to read about accepted social behavior in the host country of your travels.