Italy’s strangely seductive culture of mediocrity

  • Themes: Italy

Almost six million Italians now live outside their country, many of them young and highly skilled, fleeing an everyday life marked by pressapochismo ('sloppiness'). But many more seem content with the benign indulgences of the dolce vita.

Aged men gathering at Fontana dell' Elefante in Piazza Duomo, Catania, Sicily.
Aged men gathering at Fontana dell' Elefante in Piazza Duomo, Catania, Sicily. Credit: Conchi Martínez / Alamy Stock Photo

Earlier this year the Italian government attempted to promote tourism through a €9 million campaign called ‘Open to Meraviglia’ (‘meraviglia’ means wonder). It was a disaster from start to finish: the campaign reimagined Botticelli’s Venus as a barbie-doll influencer taking selfies, thereby turning Italy’s authentic wonders into something trashy and fake, more Vegas than Venus. A website domain name hadn’t been registered and some of the images were actually from Slovenia.

Professional incompetence is an oddly fascinating trait and those who live in Italy have ample opportunity to study it. I’ve had painful, first-hand experiences of this incompetence. Each time one of my books is translated into Italian the text comes back twisted and ruined, and my wife and I end up doing the job ourselves. I remember once a ‘pat on the back’ became a ‘pat on the buttocks’, the sort of error that implied there was actually a human being, not just Google Translate, doing the dodgy job.

This national penchant for poor quality gave rise to one of the most fascinating academic papers published in recent years. In the article, ‘The LL game: The curious preference for low quality and its Norms’, the Oxford criminologist Diego Gambetta and Paris-based philosopher Gloria Origgi wondered why ninety-five per cent of the times they were invited to academic conferences in Italy something went seriously awry. They described a ‘cocktail of confusion, sloppiness, and broken promises’, suggesting that most Italians in academia ‘prefer pressapochismo [sloppiness] to perfezionismo’.

Their cool-headed analysis of L (low-quality) and H (high-quality) suggested that the country has ‘“cartels” of mutually satisfied mediocrities’: there is a ‘reciprocal tolerance of L-ness. Not only does one want pressapochismo for oneself, one also wants it in others’. This creates an environment in which actors enter into a bizarre charade in which ‘they trust their untrustworthiness. Not only do they live with each other’s laxness, but expect it: I trust you not to keep your promises in full because I want to be free not to keep mine and not to feel bad about it. There seems to be a double deal: an official pact in which both parties declare their intention to exchange H goods and a tacit accord whereby discounts are not only allowed, but expected. It becomes a form of tacit mutual connivance on L-ness’.

I worked for several years in Italian academia and it was, by a long distance, the worst experience of a very varied working life. Quite apart from unbearable amounts of admin and year-late payments, the ‘academic quarter of an hour’ (15 minutes of grace) discourages punctuality and students can reject their grades as often as they want. The result is that, if a lecturer wants to avoid unpaid marking ad nauseum, they will bump up the grades just to be shot of the persistent offender. As one Italian proverb says, ‘there’s no limit to worse’.

The whole system is set up to perpetuate a fantasy. As Gambetta and Origgi write, ‘a teacher who pretends to teach benefits from students who pretend to learn, and vice versa. By jointly mimicking H, both parties may aim at fooling outsiders, or simply fooling themselves into sustaining a positive self-image’. An outsider not used to this charade can upset the make believe, which is why those aspiring to high standards are, rather than championed, deliberately excluded: ‘if a party delivers H instead of L, the other party feels that this is, paradoxically, a breach of trust… In other words, if I deliver H, you resent me because of that. My being trustworthy in this relation means to deliver L too’.

It’s a setup which creates fascinating conundrums. There’s a qualitative limbo to delivery in Italy: a sort of ‘how low can you go’. How poor can your service be before you break the mutual pact of agreeable sloppiness? The lack of clarity about expectations, suggest Gambetta and Origgi, creates ‘anxiety and suspicion’ and a sort of shadow-dance: ‘a portion of the colossal amount of seemingly inane chit-chat, compliments, and mannered interactions in which many Italians engage may perhaps be a manifestation of such frequent need for readjusting mutual indeterminate expectations’.

I suspect that a central reason for the drastic exodus of young Italians in the last two decades is down to a refusal to accept this ‘cartel of mediocrity’. When a society is wholly lacking in meritocracy, it seems inevitable that the most able will move to somewhere their skill-sets are recognised. According to Aire (the ‘Anagrafe degli Italiani Residenti all’Estero’, the country’s register of Italians living abroad), in May 2006 there were 3,106,251 Italians living outside the confines of the country itself. By January 2022, that figure had almost doubled to 5,806,068. 36.3 per cent of the total Italians abroad were under 35.

But strangely there are many aspects of Italian life that are exempt from sub-standard delivery. The calibre of food and drink are, as you would expect, never compromised. Nor do most artisans accept anything other than excellence. I’m currently renovating a flat in Parma and, thankfully, the degree of precision and perfectionism is remarkable. When I go to the building site to paint or plaster, I have to tidy up meticulously because the builders insist on order.

And while the wider sloppiness can sometimes test one’s patience, there’s an upside to it. It might not encourage high standards, but to live in a place where one is constantly cut slack does make it relaxing. It often seems that there’s little one can do that is irremediable. There’s a tolerance of shortcomings, a flexibility regarding plans, a nimbleness to navigating life. Everyone is indulged. It doesn’t lead to excellence but does offer inclusivity: even the least qualified can get the best jobs.


Tobias Jones