Italians don’t use them, but they are the first driving force of an economy, the foundation of every decision, the launch pad of all movements, have devastating domino effects and influence the life of millions of human beings ab urbe condita. And above all are completely free. I am talking about the words YES and NO: the pillars of communication of all time. Of every single time, since the beginning of time. But, for Italians, they are both an undecipherable ball and chain. Because we only pronounce them when we have cowardly examined, until the end, what is the best thing to do, when destiny, which got miffed , puts us upside down and shakes us violently to force us to react; things start falling down from our pockets one after the other until when a livid YES and NO involuntary also tumble, and then we start moving again beginning a new navigation.Because the truth is that YES and NO give their best on the spur-of-the-moment. The last minute YES and NO always serve you a sort of punishment and don’t enjoy the benefits of the spring chicken YES and No in which dwells something glorious.
I got to know them in New York , 11 year ago. Inspired by New York lifestyle, I used to organize a dinner at the rate of one every two weeks. Those were the first invitations I sent through e-mail and the answers I used to get were only two: YES and NO, tertium non datur. 70% were YES. Back to Rome, I kept the tradition alive, but slowly I realized that the answers to my invitations were hovering over swampy universes. The clear YES and No were the 30% of the answers, while the 70% were like a flabby Maradona who pretended to dribble in an alley. Those who try to organize something like an event or an after dinner in Rome know it well , until the last minute you don’t know exactly whom to count on.Over the years, I began to realize that some answers came back more than others, until when I made a list that I wrote during a snowy winter evening in Germany. Here is my personal HIT PARADE, the title is:
“ANATOMY OF AN ANSWER”
A semi-serious ranking of the most frequent Italian answers to an invitation.
1. HO UN MEZZO IMPEGNO ( I have half a commitment )
It is an untranslatable concept and is in great shape on top of the list. There is no trace of it in any civilization. It is two hairy white ears, pinkish in the inner part, coming out of a top hat. You think it is a rabbit, but the truth is that they are only two ears without a body. It is a top hat without hopes. The headquarters of “half commitments” is in Rome as well as its cemetery. They have half tombstones, have had half funerals and can come back to life with half a whistle and then they rejoin in diabolic embraces giving birth to other half commitments. A half a commitment is the tasteless announcement of a failure in progress. Whoever has given this answer and arrives , hasn’t really left behind his half a commitment announced because when he answered he referred exactly to your party.
2. FARO’ IL POSSIBILE ( I’ll do my best )
The “half a commitment” and the “I’ll do my best” are the cat and the fox of the Italian communication. They wander at night like fake businessmen and deceive pinocchios. They intercept them and they make them wander forever showing them a door that is perpetually slightly open, so slightly open “che n’ te apre” (that does’t open up).
3. NON TI PROMETTO NULLA ( I won’t promise anything )
You can often find it together with “Provo a fare un salto” (I’ll try to drop by), but not necessarily, they can also live parallel lives. “Non ti prometto nulla” reaches its peak during the month of August, where sometimes it can even undermine the “half a commitment”.
4. PROVO A FARE UN SALTO ( I’ll try to drop by )
It instills affection because it evokes a clumsy hope. In some occasions it is preceded by a “Dai” (C’mon). “Dai, provo a fare un salto.” But who pronounces “Dai” statistically doesn’t arrive. I really like those who “try to drop by“ very much because I have very often tried to do the same and thus I understand them. Who tries to drop by usually succeeds, and those who don’t succeed are not to blame. “Dai”(C’mon) we have all tried it.
5. CERCO DI LIBERARMI ( Lit. tr.: I’ll try to set myself free – It means I’ll try to get rid of my commitment )
It gives you an immediate gratification with a harsh aftertaste. It is a fax that you get from Alcatraz. A promise which causes anxiety. They arrive only in 20% of cases bringing along friends almost always unwanted.
6. TI FACCIO SAPERE ( I’ll let you know )
This is difficult to comment because this kind of answer deflates me like a party baloon.
7. CE LA METTERO’ TUTTA (I‘ll give it all)
It is an action answer. You keep on thinking of these people from the invitation until the day of the party. With your thought you involuntarily follow their heroic feats to reach you. They arrive from the Thames on which they have been speeding with their motorboat for weeks dodging the Maria Grazia Cucinotta’s machine-gunning. The person who “gives it all” and is able to arrive is unmistakable: he is the Harry who shows that smile moderately complacent from behind the balcony window and hints an invisible toast when you finally make eye contact with him. Did you see? I made it. Prosit.
8. SÌ ( Yes )
They arrive in the 55% of cases.
9. NO ( No )
They can indeed not come.
10. SONO INCASINATISSIMO ( I am really messed up )
More than an answer, it is a meditation on his state. It is the “half a commitment” which throws the mask away and engages in some self-examination. It is dangerous to try to understand why they are “really messed up”, just accept it and that’s it.
Et voilà. The ranking ends up here, but there is an honorable mention which doesn’t go to an answer, but to a counter-question par excellence: “CHI VIENE” (Who comes?) These are the people who are always testing the waters and if they could, they would send someone in reconnaissance even at their wedding reception, maybe their own wives, to know who is there. And finally, it isn’t in the ranking because it very rarely happens , nor gets an honorable mention because it causes me a certain anxiety: THE SILENCE. These are those who don’t answer. Called once, twice, three times, don’t give any answer. You meet them by chance in the street and ask them if they have ever received the invitation. They nod with a smile and talk about something else while you get goose bumps.
In Italy when you make an invitation it is as if you were making life difficult to others who, engaged in doing their best without promising you anything, will try to drop by trying “to set themselves free” and that , however, will let you know if Yes or No, because even if they are really messed up or if they have a half a commitment they’ll give it all.
Thus when in Rome I decide to organize a party and invite someone, I always imagine a clumsy version of Houdini in a straitjacket, wrapped with chains and locked in a sealed trunk under the sea. The man I see only has the comfort of a single trinket: an iphone always turned on that he browses with the tip of his nose. Now and then, he gets an SMS with an invitation to a dinner. In that moment, without a specific expression on his face, the man begins to agitate like a madman. My question is: “ will he give it all?”. The conclusion is that in Italy to send invitations is like sending morse code signals in the fog: only a few ones will be able to interpret them. MY FRIENDS.
For the new year I want to wish you many YES and many NO. There is something glorious in a spring chicken YES or NO, they are statuary, for better and for worse. Don’t be scared, if well employed and fast they can even restart an economy, any economy. They can move MARI e….
Manuel de Teffé
6 thoughts on “Yes and No: the pillars of communication. How we have immobilized Italy without using them”
One of the best article on current italia cultural challenges…
Thanks Susan! I think i will order one of your books on Amazon one of these days…It should be interesting for men too…
This is so incredibly accurate, it’s mind-boggling. Of course, the sequel being: Non prendo la responsibilita’ – once a decision is made, “I refuse to take any responsibility.”
Sadly, as an expat over 20 years, I still fall into the Sì = Yes & No = No and as a colleague asked me recently after one of my emphatic No’s…Do you even get much business done here???!!!
I had to admit, he had a point.
Francesca Maggi, Author
Burnt by the Tuscan Sun
The sequel being “I refuse to take any responsability”. Good point. I assure you…that’s a sequel I’m not willing to watch. Francesca wrote another very interesting book you can find here:
I had a lot of fun reading your article with my wife and my mother in law, both are 100% Italian, but ressemble more Germans when it comes to reply to invitations. What comes into my mind thinking about your topic is that in my experience there are much less seated/placed dinners in Italy than for example in Germany and if you organise a party, then it is often at least for 300 people, i.e. everyone you know and the friends of your friends…