If you ask Google to translate “awkward” into Italian, you get several results. Scomodo, which means uncomfortable, inconvenient. Goffo, clumsy. Imbarazzante, embarrassing. As a native Italian speaker, I can say that none of these adjectives accurately translate into “awkward” the way my generation of English speakers uses it. After moving to the States, I learned that “awkward” is an adjective that describes the feeling of discomfort one experiences in a social setting. Small talk on the train at 7:23 a.m. is awkward. A moment of silence during a conversation is awkward. Declining an invitation can get awkward.
When I was attending high school in Boston, “awkward” was the third most-used word among my classmates, after “cool beans” and “SATs.” It was so confusing to me, a foreign student from under the Alps, to grasp why a bunch of 17-year-olds would be so concerned with awkwardness. Now that I live in New York and I’m supposedly entering adulthood, the word is not as popular among my peers. But “awkward-phobia,” the fear of having those feelings, still dominates the minds of many around me. And it’s still so damn hard for me to understand why.
You see, we have plenty of problems in Italy. Thirty percent of our youth is jobless; thousands of Italians flee the country every year to find work elsewhere; we’re currently ruled by an interim government that is taking ages to approve important reforms, such as electoral laws and anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT citizens. Our economic growth is slow and the birth rate is negative. But one problem we don’t have is… awkwardness.
Jane Tylus, a professor of Italian at New York University, confirmed that there is no direct Italian translation of the word “awkward” intended as discomfort in a social setting. “The word ‘awkward’ comes from an Old Norse word and then a Middle English word which means ‘going in the wrong direction,’” said Tylus. “Feeling awkward means going downstream when everyone is going upstream, and being very self-conscious about it. How do you get that sense of individual turnaround in Italian, I don’t know.”
This untranslatability might be more than just a linguistic issue. In fact, it might signify a social and cultural difference between Italians and Americans. Maybe in Italy we don’t have a word for it, because we don’t feel it! Maybe we’re simply not afraid to say things the way we mean them, to have moments of silence during our conversations, to feel goofy or be straightforward.
“It might mean that Italians are more comfortable with a wide range of social situations and they feel like they can adapt more easily,” said Tylus. “Maybe the comfort level of Americans is much less in terms of being in a situation that they’re not controlling or that they have not experienced before.”
A limited number of Italians have recently began introducing the English term “awkward” into their vocabulary, friends from Milan have told me. Many of my acquaintances, however, say they have never heard anyone use it while speaking Italian. But my struggle is not related to the word itself; it’s about the social structure that the word is a part of. After college, when I announced that I was moving back to the States, my Italian friends, displaying all sorts of horrified looks on their face, asked me in a funeral voice: “What will you do about the food?”
What they did not know was that food would not be the problem. Sure, I had to fast for a couple of days out of respect for my homeland after I saw a “pizzaria” (sic!) in Midtown Manhattan displaying a pizza topped with pasta and pineapple. But the real struggle would be to understand some of the social norms that are very common among Americans and yet hard to understand for an Italian like me.
A few examples:
When people say “How are you,” and you stop and reply “Really well, and you?” but they continue walking without turning around.
When they tell you: “We should totally hang out!” and you are flattered and say, yes, let’s hang out! Until you discover that they don’t really mean it when they say it. As a friend explained to me, it’s “a form of social interaction.” You also end up realizing that when people enforce their invitations with the adverb “totally,” they might not be genuine.
When you invite someone over and they tell you: “Sounds lovely!” but never really get back to you, because they don’t want to directly decline your invitation.
In New York, saying a straightforward “No” is rude. In Italy, not saying a straightforward “No” is rude.
What’s the problem with being straightforward? Simple: it can lead to awkwardness, which people in the States would do anything to avoid experiencing. In Italy, people would not care, because they probably don’t even know what this feeling is about. So I came up with a solution: Awkward-phobic Americans should take a vacation to Italy.
Walk into a store by the Duomo in Milan and openly tell the salesperson that you don’t like the dress they want you to try on. Take the tram in Rome, say hi to your friend, then continue reading your book. Receive an invitation to a party in Florence and, instead of ignoring your host, reply that you have already made plans for that night.
While the Americans work out their issues in Italy, I’ll stay in my beloved Big Apple and enjoy all the things that I wouldn’t have in my home country: the smiles I share with strangers in the street, the “How are you’s” with no answer, the fast-paced lifestyle I love, the diversity, the employment rate, the greatness of it all. And, who knows, maybe one day I’ll start feeling awkward, too.
Image: Lily Furedi, Subway, 1934, oil, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
An earlier version of this article appeared in La Voce di New York.