In the United States, it can sometimes seem like we don’t care how we come off to others. Of course, this isn’t to say that nobody here in the good ol’ USA makes a good first impression, but its not uncommon to see people out and about in sweatpants, messy hair, no makeup, socks and sandals and don’t even get me started about the People of Walmart.
In Italy, you would never see anybody dressed like this, their mother would never let them out of the house like this! It is important to make a “Bella Figura”. Bella Figura translates literally to “beautiful image” it is the idea of always presenting your best self in any situation, even just to run to the store for some mozzarella or wine.
But Bella Figura is about more than just appearance, the blog Eye in Italia described it like this:
“Bella figura goes well beyond image, visual beauty and presentation…it also is defined by behavior: knowing how to properly and graciously interact with others in any social or public situation. Exhibiting good manners, tact and gentility is an essential component of “cutting a beautiful figure”.”
Some examples of “Bella Figura” rules are:
- dressing in clean, stylish, well fitted clothing
- wearing nice, clean shoes
- not having any wrinkles in your clothing
- being well prepared for an exam or presentation
- acting professional and poised in all situations
- sitting up straight and not having your elbows on a table
- bringing something when invited to someones house
- matching your outfit with accessories
- a well trimmed beard
- smelling good
- staying fit and healthy
- paying for a friends coffee or meal
- respecting elders
Italy Magazine writes:
“A student doing well in examination makes his/her family and school proud…”ha fatto una bella figura” or “ha fatto un figurone”! In sum, the bella figura is knowing how to behave and be in any situation to look good: the famous Italian sense of cool.”
But the Italian idea of “Bela Figura” stretches further than just the way we present ourselves as people. Think of the country itself, don’t you have a “beautiful image” of Italy? of Italian people? The way each person presents themselves not only reflects back on themselves or their families, but the county as a whole, so when you are choosing your outfits, you are running the risk of dishonoring your entire country!
People are not the only ones who can make a Bella Figura, buildings, food, parks, cities, schools, companies and even governments can! From Italy’s churches, to the vineyards and architecture you can see the attention to detail driven by the need to maintain “Bella Figura”
On the flip side, there is “Brutta Figura” which is the “Ugly Figure” or more relatable “Making a fool out of yourself” . This is where the People of Walmart comes back in. But if doesn’t have to be that extreme to leave a Brutta Figura. I would know, my mom has a glare in her eyes that she would shoot at me and my brother any time she thought we were doing something that would leave a brutta figura. Things that my mom deemed “brutta figura” worthy included
- being too loud in a store
- going out in sweatpants
- being rambunctious kids in public
- arguing in public
- wearing flip flops to town
- wearing tank tops out of the house (tank tops are underwear)
- forgetting to bring an offering when invited to someones home
- dropping food on your shirt
- wearing colors that don’t match
- wearing athletic clothes with no intention of working out (yes, yoga pants)
I get a hard time here a lot because in the USA, its not uncommon to get ready for the gym, run an errand really quick, go to the gym, and then drive home to shower and change into normal clothes (or more gym clothes if you’re me). But in Italy, this is absurd, you would never run errands in your gym clothes, and even worse, leaving the gym in your gym clothes! You are to arrive the gym in your street clothes, change in the dressing room, workout, shower at the gym, and change back into presentable clothes before leaving. I can’t wrap my head around this, I want to shower in my own home, so I don’t do it, even when I’m in Italy, but I’m American and I know they brush me off as a crazy American. Nevertheless, I am making a “brutta figura” and my mom would be very disappointed.
Italy Magazine writes:
“A brutta figura could be doing something that reflects poorly on your family: bad mouthing or complaining about a family member in public, even if it’s with some valid reason, is frowned upon and makes for a brutta figura.”
As you can see, there are so many ways to make a “brutta figura” in Italy that wouldn’t necessarily be bad back home, so what are we supposed to do?
The blog “Once Upon a Time in Italy” wrote:
“How can you avoid making a brutta figura? If you’re not Italian or haven’t been living in Italy for four decades (even then, it’s no guarantee), you can’t. You will be noticed. It’s in the way you walk, in the shoes you’re wearing, in your white athletic socks when you’re not going to the gym. It’s in the way you look around you, in your too-friendly smile. But don’t stress out. If you’re a tourist – and the Italians will know – you’re allowed to do lots of things that would otherwise be considered a brutta figura. As long as you’re polite, aware, and respectful of others around you, you’ll be fine. Your faux pas will be quaint, and you won’t make your entire country look bad.”
Another great Brutta Figura story from my American husband, Sam:
“One time in 2016 we woke early and realized that we were all out of coffee! while Alyssa made breakfast, I ran out of the house real quick to buy some coffee grounds so we could make some coffee and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I left the house in basketball shorts, a regular T-shirt and sneakers. When I got to the store, the woman was ignoring me and wouldn’t make eye contact with me, after a little bit, she aggressively asked if I was going to buy something, annoyed, I responded in Italian “yes, I want to buy some coffee” and she quickly apologized, she thought I was a homeless beggar because of the way I was dressed!”
Brutta Figura is sometimes hard to avoid as an American, even as an Italian-American, but the great thing about people in Italy, is that they are usually very understanding and unless you do something horrible, you’ll likely get a pass, because they know you’re not Italian and they know things are different in other parts of the world.
But is there a point where the desire to avoid a “Brutta Figura” can be detrimental? Could Italians be towing the line between presenting themselves in the best light and being entirely fake? Trying and failing at something could portray a brutta figura, so the desire to avoid failing causes many to not even try. For example, even though every Italian learns English in school, they are oftentimes too afraid to open their mouths and make a mistake to practice and improve the skill.
“In 2000, Fiat Auto was collapsing because of persistent poor sales and inability to penetrate the global markets and it was on the verge to be sold to the then Daimler-Chrysler group for 13 Billion USD…to sell the Company, even if it would have yielded 13 Billion USD for the shareholders of a quickly declining company, would have been for l’Avvocato (“The Lawyer”, Gianni Agnelli’s nickname) a terrible “Brutta Figura”…To keep the Company and save it together with thousands of jobs at home would have been a “Bella Figura”, regardless of the price to be paid in order to achieve it…The company shed 10 Billion USD of its value in the following 3 years (a bloodbath for the shareholders who lost 75% of their investment) and the whole “extended” Agnelli family’s stake in the company was virtually pulverized in order to save the Company, but, thanks to the Bella Figura, their face in front of society was saved”
Customer service can also take a backseat to maintaining a “Bella Figura”. If you purchase something and later find out that it is anything less than what you expected, returning an item would make the vendor look bad. Even if the problem was a mistake or unavoidable, in order to save face, the vendor might be offended and not take responsibility.
One time at a restaurant, I noticed that my bill was wrong and I was charged too much for an appetizer, thinking like an American, I brought it up, referenced the pricing on the menu, and then referred back to the receipt which proved that I had been overcharged for my dinner. Next thing I know, I’m being yelled at, excuses were being made and the restaurant employee told me that I was wrong and incapable of adding. I eventually gave up and paid the bill anyway, it was incorrect, but bringing it up to the employee made him look incompetent, even though it was probably just a simple error.
Italy Magazine writes:
“The trick is to appeal to the Italian desire to please, never hint at a lack of professionalism or any other characteristic deemed ugly… when you come across something rotten in the state of Italy, best to pretend it’s not. If you want to maintain your bella figura opt to give an Italian a chance to come up smelling of roses and make a good impression.”
It probably wouldn’t hurt us to think a little more about the way that we present ourselves to the world, the impression we leave on others, from the way we dress to the way we comport ourselves, we could all take a note from the Italians and try to leave a Bella Figura. But maybe Italians could cut themselves some slack and be more willing to make mistakes and accept responsibility for missteps, we are only human after all, nobody is perfect, even though Italians come pretty close!
What do you think?
Have you committed any of these “Brutta Figura” acts? Do you think they are too strict, or should we be more like that? What are some other Bella or Brutta figura examples you can think of?