It never dawned on me to write on this topic until Thursday night when I had the most magical "first date" expat-style with a very worldly Korean student who has been living here for the last four years. Beyond the usual immediate bonding topics, we especially got a good laugh out of the realization that while we both speak Italian, we sometimes will pretend that we don't in opportune or very specific moments. Why you ask? Because customer service in Italy is NON-EXISTENT and this Korean girl and I are VISIBLY NOT ITALIAN. This leads to very suggestive situations where people have refused to wait on us in fancypants shops or just been plain rude. Now I'm not trying to play the victim because I know that even Italians don't necessarily get the best service and that there's even intra-Italian discrimination based on where in Italy you're from etc. As well, there is not a single place in the world, Canada included, where there is not some form of racial profiling whether we are conscious of it or not (I believe there was a recent investigative report into this in Canada in fact).
The point of this post is that the two of us speak English to get better treatment because clearly being American/British/Australian or whatever is "far superior to being from an Asian country and more worthy of respect". Sickening, but true over here. Our tactics are fairly similar in that sometimes we will start a conversation with an English greeting so there is a slightly increased chance the person helping you will actually help and be somewhat cheery/polite, continue in Italian, and end the conversation with a "grazie, thank you, have a good day!". In fact, my Canadian friend, despite being white (and in my opinion, could be Italian), does the same thing at grocery stores here. She told me that her blue eyes, bone structure, and stature make Italians think she's Eastern European and therefore lumped right in with us Asians I suppose.
What baffles me is that can't they hear an American accent in Italian? I can hear Italian accents in English a mile away. Literally, I used to be the creepiest Italian stalker ever. If I heard even the slightest infliction that suggested English spoken by a native Italian you can bet I would race over there and start chortling away happily. It's a lose-lose situation alot of the times though because I've heard stories of foreigners at the Questura who have been belittled for not speaking Italian or speaking it well but then I've heard stories where if you only speak English, you get the star treatment like American Express Front-of-the-line style.
In conclusion, I don't really know what exactly my sentiments are on this particular learned behavior of living in Italy and speaking English. It makes me a bit sad that it works. What's actually even more intriguing (and ironic) is at the beginning of my year here, I had an angry moment about being 'forced' to speak English:
My Biggest Language-Related Pet Peeve: When Locals Switch to English
P.S. This rant may have made Italians sound awful and it's not true. They are extremely lovely people and I have met my share of kindness through the years. What I'm saying is more restricted to the area of customer service in general and even Italians will agree that it has no comparison to other Anglo-countries like the UK or America where 'sucking up' is part of the retail culture.
Ciao for now and if you liked this, you'll probably want to read these:
A Short Rant on Customer Service in Italy
Hardships of the Non-White Expat in Italy
The Most Important Thing I've Learned After Living in Italy for 4 Months
The Ugly Side of Italy
Or pretty much just read the Archives under "Expat Life".