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Italy vs. Britain - Your I.D., please!

Settembre 2016
A partire dalla carta d’identità da portare sempre con sé agli innumerevoli certificati necessari per fare qualsiasi cosa, la vita quotidiana degli italiani è spesso complicata da montagne di documenti e scartoffie. In Gran Bretagna tutto è molto più easy...

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

Are British or Italian people more likely to obey rules and regulations? Sounds like a stupid question? Most Italians I know have a very poor view of their co-nationals’ ability to abide by the law and they generally see British people as more obedient. So why do most British expatriates often feel overwhelmed by what they see as the excessive number of laws and regulations that exist in Italy?


Italians know instinctively which laws to obey and which to ignore. They take it for granted that everyone should possess certain documents, such as an Identity Card and an official “residence.” British people don’t have ID cards or an official residence, just an address and if you want to open a bank account in the UK you can just go to a bank with an official letter, such as your gas bill, addressed to you, and that is all the proof of address that you need.


Italians are also born with the knowledge that, if they lose one of their important documents, they have to make an official report to the police, where the loss took place.  If I lost my UK passport, for example, I’d probably just call the passport office and say: “Hey guys, I’ve lost my passport.” I would then expect a nice person on the other end of the phone to do the paperwork for me.
Most British people give great importance to things like personal liberty and privacy. They don’t see any reason to carry proof of identity around with them and they object when they are randomly stopped by Italian traffic police and asked to show their licence.


On the other hand, there are many occasions when British people seem to take their documents far more seriously. I often see Italian candidates for important international exams – exams that are required for immigration purposes – arriving at the exam centre and identifying themselves with ID cards that have obviously been through the washing machine several times.


Even my partner, who has been exposed to British culture for many years, has a very relaxed attitude towards proof of identity. On a recent trip to the UK, my daughter and I presented ourselves at passport control in Stansted airport with two pristine British passports. My partner handed over a ragged Italian ID card, which had the colour and consistency of toilet paper. The woman at passport control looked at it in disgust and asked me to take the document out of the plastic cover.
“I can’t,” I replied, “the plastic case is the only thing holding it together.”
She insisted and, when I extracted the document from the plastic, it came out in two halves.
“It’s in two halves!” commented the woman.
My partner turned over the pages and indicated that the document number was the same on each one.
“That,” said the woman, “is absolute rubbish. How could you think of travelling with a document like that?”
My partner gave the classic Italian response: he shrugged and said, “Ehhhh!” Luckily for him, he was travelling with two serious passport holders and he was allowed across the border.
On the way back into Italy, the scene was very different. The official at passport control simply looked at the pathetic ID card, still in its plastic, and said: “Get a new one next time.” And that was it!


Many scholarly articles have been written about how some cultures avoid uncertainty or ambiguity. People from these cultures – Italians, for example – feel uncomfortable in ambiguous situations and so they prefer structure in their organizations and institutions. Documents providing proof of who they are and where they live are all part of that structure.
However, uncertainty is not the same as risk. Risk is usually associated with something specific and known, and people from uncertainty avoiding cultures are often quite happy to indulge in risky behaviour, as long as they know what the risk is.


Italians like to have official documents, but they’re quite happy to show up at an airport with an illegible ID card and run the risk of being refused entry. After all, they can always shrug and say “Ehhhh!” British people, on the other hand, don’t like too many official papers, but they’re more likely to take care of the few documents they have.
Official papers in Italy can be a nightmare for British expats, so next month, we’ll be taking a closer look at British encounters with Italian bureaucracy.

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