Cultural differences – from an American mom living in Italy

I wonder if “special” is an American concept. An American concept that defeats us, or at least constrains joy and connection. In the States, everything must be special— holidays, birthdays, celebrations, school plays, ballet recitals, graduations, travel itineraries, class parties. We strive for a perfection that is unattainable. We hold back from challenging anyone else’s striving for perfection, while squirming to establish our own. I speak from experience. It’s something about me that I have wrestled with, but its deep roots have never been as clear as they are now, when I am surrounded by people who operate from a whole different ethos.

Here, it is not about being special or perfect (several Italians have opined to me that to Americans, perfect means, “better than everyone else”). I first noticed this when my children would come home with stories of their new classmates celebrating their artwork. Now, some of those classmates have lesser artistic skill than my children, and some have far more. But they all gathered to genuinely applaud anything my children drew. Initially, I thought that this praise was intended to make my children comfortable in their new environment. But now I believe that because these children don’t have a hunger to be special, they don’t compare other people to themselves to evaluate their “specialness,” and therefore are able to genuinely appreciate the efforts of others.

So when Siena draws a cat, they don’t think, “I can draw a better one,” and therefore dismiss her skills. Nor do they say, “I could never do that, what’s wrong with me that I can’t do that; “mamma mia, is there anything about me that is special?” This is a reaction I have witnessed over and over in the States, both in my work with children and adults, and also in observing a classroom of children deflate a little in the presence of their peer’s talent.

Because here is the lie we Americans tell our children—“everyone has some- thing about them that makes them special.” It’s just not true—not everyone has a talent, a skill that defines them. They are beloved, and they have beautiful spirits that move us in fabulous ways, that make them dear companions and cherished loved ones. But they don’t all have talents that a little digging will uncover. And the constant searching for specialness and perfection is too much pressure. Every time we look at our experience in the light of someone else’s, it uproots a little of our own soil.

I was raised in this American culture of specialness, and I can notice in myself a knee-jerk “what about me?” response when someone I know reaches a pinnacle of achievement. I feel suddenly, and embarrassingly, “less than.” It takes actual work to note the reaction, forgive it (still working on that), and then remind myself of this message that Italy is teaching me.

We don’t have to be special.

There is no need. It serves no purpose. It helps nobody. The striving to be special galvanizes the dark and twisty bits inside my chest. It is much nicer to step out of my ego, and swim with the wave, instead of against it. To feel a sense of shared joy at the accomplishments of someone in my community. To sense the unity among us, as opposed to the divisions of “you” and “me.” And it’s this “community” versus “self” approach that is responsible for why my children are experiencing a different social dynamic this year—with no bullies, queen bees, or king pins. If everyone has value, and the talents and skills that set one apart are irrelevant to that value, then there is an answering openness and acceptance. With no one trying to be special, it’s so much easier to love each other. To hold hands and laugh.

To celebrate anything that sparkles.

Michelle Damiani is an American  writer and psychologist. Her book about her family’s life in Italy, Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center, is now available on Amazon.

More posts by Michelle Damiani:

  • Boy on the Edges

    It's hard to be a 14-year-old boy at a new school. Even harder when you don't speak the language, and everyone else has been educated together since before they could twirl pasta. At first connecting ..Read more

  • I am not prepared for this.

    For the most part, the children are adapting to their new lives. Nicolas brags that he is getting shoved by the other boys, Gabe tells me that he likes how Italy is less busy than America, and Siena f..Read more

  • A Place at the Table

    A perk of eighth grade in Italy is the annual gita. Italian for "excursion," this is a three-day rite of passage celebrating the end of middle school—a last "viva!" before the students divide into s..Read more