Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Sant'Ambrogio Holiday, Piazza Fontana all lit up

Today was the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio (St Ambrose), the patron saint of Milan. Just as every city in Italy has a patron saint, so the feast day associated with each saint tends to be a local holiday. Today, December 7th, is one day before the Feast of the Immacolata (Immaculate Conception) on Wednesday, which is a national holiday. So, in Milan there are two consecutive holidays in the middle of this week. But why stop there? A lot of people will have taken advantage of the proximity of Sant’Ambrogio to the preceding weekend and they will have made a “bridge” (un ponte), which is a way of linking the weekend to the following, mid-week holiday. I’m not sure how many people will attempt to span the Immacolata on Wednesday to the following weekend (in a kind of Clifton Suspension Bridge mega-ponte), but certainly, for many Milanese their pre-Christmas break started last Friday when they finished work – and most will not return until Thursday, which means they will have had almost a week off.

What a very civilised place to live, Milan. (Italian readers intending to move to the UK, please note that since all Bank Holidays (which is what we call public holidays in Britain) are on a Monday, there is virtually no opportunity to make a “bridge”. A Bank Holiday is more of a pier extending out from the pleasure-beach of the weekend. (The only exceptions to this are Good Friday (venerdi Santo), curiously NOT a public holiday in Catholic Italy, and, of course, the days between Christmas and New Year, although in these straitened economic times there is a trend for companies to call people in to work during this period.))

It snowed a few days ago, although most of the snow has disappeared. It’s only when you get out into what the Milanese call their “hinterland” (but which a native English speaker would refer to as the outskirts of the city), that there is still any (real) snow left. On the metro train into the centre I passed a derelict-looking barn, decorated with Christmas lights, glowing surreally among the corrugated brown fields, dusted with snow.

 Sant'Ambrogio is the day the Christmas
tree lights are turned on in Piazza Duomo.
And while the snow may have gone, the air was wet. It’s not quite rain, and far from being fog; it’s a kind of vapour hanging in the air, stirred easily by any wind, which means that an umbrella affords little protection. Standing under the portico fringing the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II (also known as the drawing room (salotto) of Milan), the moisture came in under the ornate arches, almost like the sea-spray washed up onto the deck of a ship. More Venice than Milan.

A thousand points of light: Piazza Fontana
I walked through Piazza Fontana, where the eponymous fountain has been elaborately decorated – nay, transmogrified – into a fountain of light, I suppose. The nymphs (or are they nereids?) on each side of the fountain were bathed in a slowly-cycling rainbow, with the splashing water rippling the light. The whole fountain was overgrown with sparkling fairy lights forming a carpet or net of steely highlights, all blazing out in the damp twilight. The effect (specially produced for the annual Festival of Light, a kind of secular, industry-sponsored Milanese Diwali or Channukah) was striking, but it was not unique. Opposite the fountain stood a small forest of tall, golden women, lamé nudes with their arms in the air, caught in a cheerleading moment of exuberance, and their hands strangely enlarged and distorted, suggesting not only the stubby branches of polled trees, but engorged reindeer antlers. Behind these gilded ladies the newly-refurbished hotel was hung with golden nets of light (ubiquitious nowadays, but at one time surely a traditional Sikh decoration, rather than a global design motif). And all this light, of course, was reflected in the sheen of the paving stones and cobbles that add to Piazza Fontana’s unique character. (Santa’s carbon footprint must be enormous, but there’s still something magical and eternal about lighting up the darkness at the end of the old year.)

Clanking and swaying as they heave into the Piazza, Milan’s traditional orange trams arrive like gondolas berthing in a port of light and shadow, disgorging their human cargo with a sudden snap of wooden doors, followed instantaneously by the smart flapping of steps (also made of wood) down onto which a cast of smartly-dressed burghers make their unsteady way: gentlemen in dark overcoats and felt hats, ladies of a certain age submerged in fur, youths sporting absurd woollen hats, puffed-up boleros and drainpipe jeans and leggings, like hip renaissance pages. Umbrellas blossom, an instant palate of colours squeezed onto the damp, grey air.

Golden Girls: Piazza Fontana statues

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Common abbreviations in Business English: e.g., i.e., fyi, CIO, KM... OK?

There are thousands of abbreviations in common use, and with the increased use of computer technology, social media (such as chatting) and the proliferation of organisations, legislation and professional jargon, the number of acronyms and shortened forms of words and expressions that you need to know can seem mind-boggling (totally confusing).

Here’s a selection of some of the more useful ones, which I have organised according to topic. Hope you find them useful.

Writing and email

Perhaps the most common – and yet (certainly for Italian people learning English) the most confusing abbreviations – are e.g. and i.e..

E.g. means “for example”. (Why? Well, that’s because it’s really the initials of the Latin expression “exemplii gratia” – for the sake of example.)

I.e. means “that is” (Italian cioè). (Latin again: id est).

When you send someone an email you can “cc” another person or “copy them in” to the email. Cc means “carbon copy”, a reference to old-fashioned carbon paper used to make copies of a letter while writing them on a typewriter. If you don’t want someone to know that you are copying a third person in, then use “bcc” or “blind carbon copy”.

Digital technology, including the internet, has led to the creation of a huge number of abbreviations, especially as typed or texted forms of real-time communication, such as online chat, internet messaging (IM) and texting (SMS) have gained popularity. Some of the more familiar acronyms from these media include:

FYI = For Your Information. This is typically used when you want to send someone an interesting link you have found, but one which doesn’t require a lengthy (long) introduction.

IMHO – In my humble opinion (used when you express a personal opinion that could be considered arrogant or controversial. It shows that you are aware of this implication.)

LOL – Laugh(s) out loud – This type of digital shorthand (steno) for reactions and emotions has developed due to the often colourless or anonymous nature of online chat.

BTW – By the way – indicates a change of subject or the introduction of an incidental fact.
(btw you can find one of the best online collections of online acronyms and jargon – some of them very funny – on netlingo.com, the internet dictionary. One of my favourites is the term used by IT support staff to indicate that there they cannot find a technical fault: PEBCAK – Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard.)

Texting, also known as SMS (Short Message Service) requires the writer to compress a lot of information into as small a space as possible. This has led to a modern form of highly-condensed writing, sometimes surprisingly imaginative.

B4 = before
L8r = later
CU = See you
(Which produces: CU l8r = See you later)

Business Acronyms

There are also thousands of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) used in everyday Business English. Here’s a selection of some of the more useful ones:

People / job titles

CEO = Chief Executive Officer
CFO = Chief Financial Officer
CIO = Chief Information Officer
MD = Managing Director
PRO = Public Relations Officer

Other business acronyms

VAT = Value Added Tax (IVA) (recently raised in the UK form 17.5% to 20%)

P&L = Profit & Loss account / statement (one of the financial statements a company has to produce)

KPI = Key Performance Indicators – measurements used to evaluate how well a team or firm is performing

KM = Knowledge Management – a strategic approach to insights undertaken by companies

RRP = Recommended Retail Price – the price customers should pay suggested by the manufacturer

I hope you find these abbreviations useful. If anyone would like to know the meaning of other common business acronyms – or if you have found an acronym that you want to share with other people, visit the Milan Business English Network on Facebook or add a comment here.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Business English False Friends

First of all, what is a false friend? This, as I’m sure everyone knows already, is a word in one language that looks or sounds similar to a word in another language, but – and here’s the important bit – it has a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MEANING! There are thousands of English words that are similar to Italian ones (and vice-versa), e.g. the word “actually” in English means "really" / "in fact", but not “now” or “currently” (attualmente) (and, just to make things more difficult, “currently” doesn’t mean “correntemente”, which is “fluently”).

There are, indeed, hundreds of such false friends that crop up (appear unexpectedly) in Business English – usually at the most inconvenient or awkward time! So, to answer your question, here’s a list of some of the more common English / Italian business false friends:

Agenda / diary 
This is a classic false friend that usually occurs at least once in every Business English class or meeting between English and Italian speakers. The word “agenda” in English means “l’ordine del giorno” in Italian – a list of points to discuss at a meeting. The little book you write down all your appointments in is a diary – not an agenda. (And, of course, the word “diary” not only sounds like Italian “diario”, but has the same meaning – a book in which you record your impressions and experiences on a daily basis. However, while you may have a desk diary or appointment diary on your desk (“agenda”), you are unlikely to have a “diario”, unless you are a writer or an artist.)

(Incidentally, if you want to read one of the most entertaining diaries ever written, I recommend Salvador Dalí’s “Diary of a Genius” – the perfect antidote to a stressful day at work.)

Mail / email / post
Here’s another common mistake where the same words are used with a slightly different intention. The word “mail” in English is an uncountable noun (like “water” or “coffee”) and it means something sent or received though the postal system (usually letters). “Mail” is more commonly used in the US, while in Britain we prefer to use the expression “(the) post”. Now, in modern Italian it is perfectly acceptable to say “un mail” when you are referring to the messages you send and receive in Outlook, Gmail or whatever electronic service you use. But you can’t say “a mail” in English! This is not only because the word “mail” is uncountable, but also because “mail” only refers to paper. Instead, you should say “I received an email” (sometimes written with a hyphen: e-mail). While you can “post” messages on a blog or web page, and you can read the “posts” that have been written, don’t talk about “electronic post”. Just use “email”.

Want to discover more Business English false friends? Join the Milan Business English Network on Facebook, where you can find not only answers to your most puzzling questions, but also meet new people who have the same interests as you.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Quick questions

Question: At school my English teacher told me that we always use the Present Continuous for actions happening at the time of speaking. What does this mean? What is “the time of speaking”?

Answer:  The time of speaking means when you say the sentence. For example, if you are driving to Rome and someone phones you (and you reply using your hands-free phone, of course) you would say: "I’m driving to Rome" because you are actually (really) doing the action when you say it (i.e. (that is) at the moment of speaking).

If you are sitting at home and someone asks you how you normally get to work, you would say “I drive” (using the Present Simple) because you are not driving at the moment you say the sentence.
So, if you are doing the action when you speak, you use the Present Continuous. But if you are not doing the action at the moment of speaking, use the Present Simple.

Question: When do we use “a” and when do when we use “an”?
Answer: Use the indefinite article “a” or “an” when you are talking about something (a noun) in general – not a particular, defined noun. Use “a” before a consonant sound, e.g. (for example) a book, a camera. Use “an” before a vowel sound, an apple, an umbrella. But be careful! Some words which begin with a vowel don’t have a vowel sound, e.g. a university.

Who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer – and what does he (or she) do?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (usually referred to more simply as the Chancellor) is really just the British Finance Minister. The finance department is known in Britain as the Treasury. The current Chancellor of the Exchequer is the Conservative politician George Osborne, a minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Lib-Con) coalition government. 

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Make that call! (Part 1)

Effective business telephone calls in English are not as difficult as you think, as Robert Dennis explains...

Do you have to make an important call?
Are you afraid of using the phone in English? Do your hands start to shake when you dial a telephone number and know that you will have to not only speak in English – but also understand the other person? And would you rather send (= Would you prefer to send) an email in order to avoid (evitare) the situation completely? Well, you are not alone. Millions of non-native speakers of English face exactly this situation every day – often at work and in high stress environments, where there is no alternative to talking on the phone.

But using the phone in English doesn’t need to be a nightmare (incubo). If you follow the simple suggestions described below – and learn some of the key business telephone expressions included in section 2 of this article – you will soon find that making phone calls in English is one of the simplest and most direct ways of communicating with your clients, customers or other colleagues.

Steps to making the perfect business phone call

Stop! Take your hand off that receiver (cornetto). Before you pick up the phone... PREPARE! Get yourself ready first – and you will find it much easier to make that important business call. Here’s a checklist of things you can do before you phone someone:

1. Write down the main points that you want to discuss with the person you are going to speak to.

These don’t need to be long notes – in fact, it’s better that you don’t write whole sentences, as you will sound as if you’re reading from a script. (Think of those telephone calls you get from banks and other large companies where an operator sitting in a call centre reads from a long prepared script. It’s like talking to a robot, isn’t it?) Just jot down (write quickly) a few bullet points – single words and short phrases are best. For example:

Contact: Chris Hemming, HKR Communications:

• New designs for brochure

• Printing – how much? When?

• Payment – euros or pounds?

Having these notes in front of you – even if they’re just written on a yellow Post-It™ will help you to focus on what you want you want to say and enable you to structure the conversation.

2. Create the perfect telephoning conditions, if possible.
Get everything ready before you phone. If you’re in a noisy (rumoroso) office, try and find a quiet place where you can make the call. Ideally (perfectly) in a room where you can shut the door to keep background noise to a minimum. Try and choose a time to call when you know the other person will not be in a hurry and has time to speak. (Avoid phoning at awkard (difficult) times, such as early on Monday morning and late on a Friday afternoon. Think about it: would you be happy if someone phoned you during these periods?) Have a pad (blocco noti) and a pen in front of you (with your notes from point 1, above). (You may find it useful to write down words and phrases that the other person says as you are trying to understand them. You can then use these to help form your own replies and questions). If you need to discuss a proposal, design or similar document with the other person, it’s much easier if you both have it on your desk in front of you. You can then refer to the appropriate pages, paragraphs or details that you need to talk about. Send an email with your document attached and ask the other person to print it out or have it open on their PC when you call. Arrange a suitable time to speak so that you can both get ready. (Even for two native speakers, this can save a lot of time.) Spending a short amount of time creating a relaxed, well-ordered phoning environment will be worth the effort (vale la pena) when you are in the middle of the call.

3. Rehearse (provare) the call. You can either do this silently in your head, or (preferably) speaking out loud (ad alta voce). (Of course, you will probably want to do this when no one else is around – or you may find your colleagues are slightly worried (ansiosi) that you are under so much stress that you are talking to people without actually (really) using the telephone!) Think about what you will say, the type of reply you will receive and any possible points or questions that could come up (happen) during the conversation. If you know there are some tricky (difficult) names or technical words that you will have to say, practice them before you ring (phone) the other person. Be ready to spell long or difficult words. (e.g. If you need to tell someone that the project meeting will be in Domodossola, think of words that you can use to spell this out over the phone: “D as in Difficult, O as in Orange, M as in Manchester”, etc.). If you are giving someone a number, such as phone number or account number, get the other person to repeat it back to you. Of course, if there is any really important written information that you need to pass on (give) or receive, tell the other person you will send an email (and don’t forget to send it) – or get them to send one to you.

4. Take a deep breath.
If it’s a really important, make-or-break call, get yourself physically ready. Do some deep breathing exercises before you speak. (Breathe in, count slowly to five, breathe out, repeat two or three times.) You will then find you start the call in a Zen-like state of calm (peaceful relaxation), even if you start to find yourself struggling (lottando) as the call progresses. Have a drink in front of you – when you get stressed your throat (gola) can dry out – which can make you sound even more stressed. Even if it’s only a bottle of mineral water, keep some liquid nearby so you can take a few sips (sorsi) when the other person’s speaking. (A drink’s OK, if you can swallow (inghiottire) quietly, but never eat or chew gum while you’re speaking on the phone – the receiver (microtelefono) amplifies the sound and it’s like talking to a cement-mixer (betoniera) – plus, it can make you more difficult to understand.)

Go ahead and dial

Right, so we’ve looked at how you can prepare for that big call you need to make. Now, let’s consider some survival strategies you can use to help you to help you make it to the end of conversation.

• Put yourself in control

If you phone someone up – using the suggestions in the previous situation – you will automatically be in a better frame of mind than if the other person calls you when you are not ready or in the middle of something else. If it’s a really bad time (for example, the fire alarm has just gone off or your boss (capo) is standing in front of you with a long list of figures that need to be checked (controllato) immediately) ask the other person if you can call them back. (You might even decide to use this as a ruse (stratagemma) so that you can make sure you are 100% (per cent) ready, even if you have to tell a white lie (bugia pietosa), e.g. you’re just about to go into a meeting, but you’ll phone them when you come out.

• Get the other person to slow down

This can be more of a problem if you’re talking to a native speaker: non-native speakers of English know that it is difficult to communicate in a foreign language – particularly on the phone. However, a native English speaker, particularly someone who has little experience of talking to foreigners, may not realise this. Trying to understand a British or American person rabbiting on (parlare a vanvera) at high speed (a tutta velocità) can be incredibly frustrating. Why not tell the person you are speaking to at the beginning of the call that you do speak English, but you sometimes find it a bit tricky (difficult) to understand everything, so it would be a lot easier if they spoke a little (more) slowly. If the other person starts to speed up during the conversation (which is what usually happens), gently remind them to slow down. If you communicate with the same person on a regular basis they will eventually learn to do this automatically when they speak to you, but you need to train (addestrare) them at the beginning.

• Ask the other person to repeat something if you don’t understand

Don’t assume that if you miss (non cogliere) something it probably isn’t that important anyway: it may be the most important thing in the conversation! If you suspect that you haven’t heard something properly – or you simply haven’t understood – ask the other speaker to say it again or to explain. (If you have to do this repeatedly, try and make a joke (scherzo) of it – getting the other person to co-operate is much easier if you keep the tone of the conversation light-hearted (allegro) and friendly. You can still do this and remain professional. Indeed, the more serious or complicated the topic is, the more important it is to make sure that you are both communicating as effectively as possible – and it’s much easier to communicate with someone you like – and who likes you. If you don’t understand a word or phrase because of the way the other person is saying it, try asking them a question like “Sorry, did you say envelopes?” or give them a choice: “Er, sorry, was that thirteen (13) or thirty (30)? I didn’t quite catch what you said.”)

• Check that you both understand and agree on what has been said or decided

It’s surprising how often (even in your native language) you think you’ve said one thing, but the other person has understood something completely different. Even if (or especially if) the two speakers are highly educated, intelligent people, they can get their wires crossed (capirsi male, literally: incrociare le file). At the end of the conversation, summarise what you have agreed or check to see what the other person thinks you have said:

So, are we agreed, them? I’ll send over the designs to your office and you can decide which one you want – and that you’ll confirm that in writing?
- Yes, that’s right.

Focus on action and outcomes (risultati)

You don’t normally phone people up at work just for a chat – and if you do, you probably know the other person very well anyway, so anything important you have to communicate can be done in a fairly relaxed way. Contacting someone you don’t know very well (if at all) in a foreign language, particularly when you are already under stress from other factors (such as deadlines (scadenze) or a bad phone line) demands that you have an effective approach. The key to making a successful business telephone call is to focus on what you want to achieve – on the practical result (or results) of the call. Before you call, ask yourself these questions:

• Why you are making this call?
• Are you talking to the right person?
• What do you want that person to do after the call?
• What do you need to do?
• Does the other person need any more information? Do you?
• Is there any other way you could achieve the same result without making the call?

Why you are making this call?
Be clear about why you are calling. If you are phoning to ask someone whether they have finished the report you need, stick to that topic – don’t be tempted to introduce another point simply because you have that person on the line. If you cannot resist, hint (accennare) that you need to talk about the other topic later and then phone them again on a different occasion, or send an email. (Remember: information is like whisky: its effect is more powerful when it’s neat than when it’s diluted.)

Are you talking to the right person?
If you need a decision, talk to the decision maker whenever possible. Spending an hour explaining your proposal to an assistant may, at best, result in the information being passed on more or less successfully, or the other person simple might explain that they have to ask their boss. Even then, you could find yourself having to repeat everything you said when you finally talk to the person who can give you a definite “yes” or “no”.

What do you want that person to do after the call?
A business telephone call is a little bit like writing a good computer program. You have to have a clear objective – an output or goal – at the beginning, and everything you say during the call should lead (menare) to this objective. If you want someone to send you something, then make sure that you tell them what they have to send, exactly who and where it has to go and when you want it by. Failing to give all the necessary information will only result in delays or unnecessary follow-up calls (or emails) and requests for the name, address or date that wasn’t given during the call.

What do you need to do?
If you tell someone that you will send details of the agreement today, then send details of the agreement today. The longer you wait between hanging up and hitting the send button on your email, the less likely it is that the other person will act promptly (prontamente) and the more likely it is you will have to speak to them again and re-check what you have already agreed.

Does the other person need any more information? Do you?
Put yourself in the position of the person you are communicating with. If they want to contact you later, do they have all your details (phone, mobile (cellulare), address, etc)? Anticipate the other person’s needs or difficulties. Give them your direct number or extension (assuming you do want them to contact you again directly on the phone). If you have referred to a document or web page, send them the exact title or link so they can find it easily.

Is there any other way you could achieve the same result without making the call?
Ask yourself if this is really the best way of communicating with someone. Yes, speaking on the phone is the most direct means of communication, but there can also be many distractions – especially if the other person – or you yourself – are already pre-occupied with another task. A well-written email is often more effective than a phone call – and it also has the advantage that it can be referred to whenever the reader (or you) needs to check the information it contains. You certainly can’t do this (easily) with a phone call, unless you record (and transcribe) all your calls! Quite often the best way to communicate in business is to send someone a clear, well-structured email, follow it up with a brief call (even if it it’s just to check they have received – and read – the email). And then send a short follow-up email (a line or two) confirming in writing the action(s) you have agreed during the call.

Now you’re fully prepared mentally and physically – and with a clear phone strategy – you need some juicy (succoso, vantaggioso) business telephone phrases to make your call as professional and effective as possible. Read the next section, which contains a comprehensive range of useful language to help you achieve your results...

Note: the business telephone phrases in secton 2 of "Make that call!" will soon be available as premium content or to students taking professional business courses with Robert Dennis. (That's enough free content...)

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Words in the media: Crunch

If you’ve been reading the British press over the last few years, and in particular the coverage of the global financial crisis, there is one phrase that you will have found keeps cropping up: the credit crunch.

The term “credit crunch” relates to the lack of available credit, particularly the reluctance of banks to lend to each other (a practice known as interbank lending). Credit crunch is a suitably dramatic-sounding phrase that works well on TV and in newspaper stories, especially in headlines (where it can be simplified to just crunch when space is limited).

The word crunch lierally means to crush food between the teeth as when you bite into an apple. It can also suggest a sudden, powerful movement, such as the violent, metallic grinding sound produced when a car driver tries to change gear suddenly (known as crunching the gears). There is, I suppose, a cognitive similarity between this and the sudden shift in normal banking practice that caused an important mechanism in the economy to instantly seize up.

A large number of financial English phrases depict money and capital as a liquid (liquidity, currency, cash-flow, cash injection, etc). The image, then, of this liquid suddenly not flowing (as, for example, when we talk about funding drying up, or turning off the tap) or becoming solid (as in freezing someone’s assets) suggests that the financial engine of a business has stalled; there is an interruption to the flow of capital that it needs to keep running. Likewise, the credit crunch is both a metaphor for the sudden malfunction of the banking and finance sectors due to the absence of liquidity; and, of course, it’s also a description of the impact this has had on the wider economy as companies, in particular retailers and manufacturers – and consumers – are suddenly unable to operate because the machinery of financial institutions and markets have ground to a halt.

There are a number of ideas associated with “crunch”. The most common of these is that of eating something crunchy, such as an apple or a slice of toast. In order to crunch something it has to be hard to begin with but is then physically broken down by the action of one’s molars crushing it. Compare this to chewing, which is similar, but which involves a slightly different process. When you chew something, such as chewing gum or nougat you grind it between your back teeth, but instead of destroying or transforming its structure you are simply softening it while it retains its essential integrity. For example, if you chew a piece of meat it’s still a piece of meat when you swallow it. A bolus (the “ball” of food you make with your mouth) of apple or toast on the other hand has lost all its original texture (otherwise you would choke as it went down).

Crunch also suggests the act of biting into something (as in the expression to crunch into an apple), while chew implies that you have already either bitten off a piece or cut up something which is now entirely inside your mouth. (Think of the English expression to bite off more than you can chew.) If you were eating something which is chewy but too large to put in your much all at once (such as a Curlywurly, a popular sweet (confectionery) in Britain circa 1975, which consisted of long plaited strips of toffee dipped in chocolate), you would still have to bite off part of the Curlywurly before you could chew it.)

On the subject of confectionery nostalgia, the Double Decker (does it still exist?) consisted of a crunchy chocolate biscuit layer with a chewy soft nougat layer on top. The whole thing was coated in milk chocolate and the TV advertising that accompanied it (inevitably accounting for more than half of its appeal) featured legendary bearded political satirist and whimsical humorist Willy Rushden insisting that the Double Decker was alternately chewy and crunchy. (I suppose you really have to be British to appreciate this; it’s similar to listening to Italians discussing exactly which sugo (sauce) you need to have with farfalle (bow-tie pasta) in order to get exactly the right taste-texture sensation – the narcissism of small difference writ large?)

Crunchie, a honeycomb bar covered in chocolate, was (and indeed still is) crunchy. It’s classic advertising slogan “Get that Friday feeling” neatly combined the exploited worker’s alienation from his / her labour (you’re only happy when the weekend is nearly here) with the consumer’s ever-present desire for (and belief in) instant gratification (Why wait till Friday to feel happy? Have a chocolate bar now and it’ll cheer you up, even though it’s Monday morning.)

The expression number cruncher, which means someone who works with figures, usually statistics, is a slightly derogatory way of describing a person who only focuses on calculations and quantities, perhaps at the expense of imagination or creativity. (A similar prejudice is demonstrated by calling an accountant or book-keeper a bean counter.)

Crunch can also mean “important” or “critical” as in the phrases crunch time / moment or a crunch vote in Parliament or the US House / Senate (a decisive vote). Perhaps here, the underlying idea is that something is irrevocable and the players are under enormous pressure. I have the image of rocks being smashed together under an intolerable force, violently producing a dramatic result. I seem to remember something from school geography about metamorphic rock (marble?) being created this way (as opposed to igneous or sedimentary rock).

It’s also reminiscent of the car crunchers (or crushers) that were obligatory in every US police or detective show of the 1970s. In a scrapyard (junkyard, US) an outsize Ford or Thunderbird is grabbed by a huge magnet at the end of a chain hanging down from a swing arm. The car dangles in the air, swaying like a condemned criminal dispatched on a gibbet. Finally the arm swings round and the electro-magnet is suddenly cut. The car falls into the demonic jaws of a crusher, where it is pounded and buckled into a compact metallic cube, which the machine spits out onto a conveyor belt. A multi-layered symbol, the car crusher stands variously for:

  • an immediate threat (quite often the driver would still be in the car, at the mercy of the mob boss waiting to give the signal – a raised cigar – to the crane operator)
  • the brutality and callousness of the disposable consumer culture, chewing up and spitting out not only used cars, but also surplus Motown labour and dwindling natural resources
  • a stand-in for the destroyer god in polytheistic religions (such as the Hindu divinity Kali). The feeding arm and the hydraulic jaws suggest a powerful (and hungry) being that must be propitiated, like the Minotaur. This seems to play on our deep-seated fear of becoming someone else’s lunch (and the unintentionally terrifying promise of overbearing Jewish grandparents that “Oy, I could eat you!” which their diminutive descendant may not realise is actually metaphorical)
The car crusher is invariably stopped at the very last moment by the hero (literally) putting a spanner in the works. (A device used in countless Hollywood films, including perhaps most memorably the Coen Brother’s Art Deco critique of American capitalism, The Hudsucker Proxy.) The gears crunch, the grinding jaws are suspended in a quivering, twitching vibrato that lasts just long enough for the potential victim to escape, followed immediately by the resumption of the screeching and growling of metal against metal (although with a slightly different twist in The Hudsucker Proxy – watch the DVD). Just so with the economic recovery, the anticipated resumption of business as normal – the newly-lubricated wheels of industry are starting to turn again. Capitalism may be a bad thing but the effects of a financial system coming to a halting, crunching end (with little sign of a revolution to follow) seem a lot worse. (Perhaps a case of the devil you know…).

On a final alimentary (food) note, the word crunch in Anglo-Saxon FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) marketing seems reserved for products made from nuts (including crunchy peanut butter) or for (sweet) biscuits. It is not normally applied to savoury things, such as crisps (patatine), which, however, in Italian are considered “croccante” (crunchy). Crisp in English suggests a certain brittleness of texture, while crunchy implies that something would bear at least several bites – i.e. it would have a certain durability or resistance (like a nut) not present in something as insubstantial as a crisp.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Life in Italy and in the UK: some differences (1) Appearance

I have now been living in Milan for almost two years so I’ve had many opportunties to compare life in Italy with that in the UK. Some of the differences are obvious (orange trams v red buses, for example), while some are more subtle and take a while to appreciate fully, such as the varying attitudes towards authority, public institutions and figures – and, of course, religion – between the two countries.

Living in a foreign country you become an observer of the people you see every day, a sort of amateur social anthropologist, so I suppose most of the differences between living in Britain and living in Italy are simply due to the fact that most people here are Italian. Consequently, it’s impossible to separate living in Italy from the fact of being surrounded by Italians (and, of course, not being Italian yourself).

The most obvious difference between the Italians and the Brits is their relative appearance. This is especially true in Milan, where your appearance counts for a lot (if not quite everything). When I first arrived in Milan I was inevitably struck by the fact that walking down the street in this city is the closest you can come to attending a fashion show. (Let’s face it, it actually is a fashion show). Even after two years I am constantly surprised by the level of attention and thought that some people have obviously put into the act of getting dressed to go out. And I’m not talking about over-the-top clubbers on their way to a Rocky Horror theme night; no, I mean someone who’s gone to the post office and is standing in the queue to withdraw some cash from their savings account, but before leaving the house has transformed themselves into Katherine Hepburn waiting in the lobby of the Cairo Hilton for a telegram from the Aga Khan. After a while it seems – if not quite normal, then at least commonplace – to see ladies of a certain age in fur coats (and matching fur hats) with elaborate candyfloss hair and enough gold to stock a small Bond Street jewellers. Or perhaps it’ll be a willowy, wannabe supermodel in white drainpipe jeans, leopardskin bolero and outsize Aviators (which always remind me of a fly) tottering along the pavement on six-inch heels, dragging the obligatory chihuahua in red PVC trimmed with gold piping – and this is simply someone coming out of a delicatessen clutching a plastic bag full of cheese and ham, on their way their home to have their tea.

Of course Milan is the global capital of fashion – or of the fashion industry, at any rate – and even people from other regions consider the Milanese ultra-stylish. But paying close attention to the way you look and dress is, of course, an essential element in the make-up of all Italians. As a Brit with virtually no interest in my own clothes, other than that they are comfortable and (generally) clean, the Italian obsession with appearance can sometimes feel like a pervasive and slightly indulgent neurosis; a shared hang-up that’s simply got out of hand, to the extent that it would now seem churlish mentioning to someone that in the quarter of an hour they’ve just spent picking lint off their jumper they could have read an Economist article on quantitative easing.

Every culture defines itself by giving greater weight to things that outsiders generally consider trivial or irrelevant. While it’s a cliché, for instance, that the British always talk about the weather and are obsessed with tea, it is nonethless true that a typical English conversation in the UK will include a consideration of the seasonality (or otherwise) of the snow or rain that we’ve been having recently. (And if you don’t mind, I’d much rather you put the milk in first. In fact, it always tastes much better if you make it in a teapot...) It would be odd, then, if only some Italians – the Milanese, say – were image-mad, while appearance was of little or no concern to other Italians; as it is, the brand horses trotting between the boutiques of Milan’s quadrilateral (the four streets that border the main haute-couture shopping district) are simply expressing in a somewhat exaggerated way a tendency that is present in all their countrymen (and especially countrywomen).

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Being polite in English

A lot of visitors to Britain are often struck by how polite the English are. If you go into a shop in Britain (particularly in a small town or village) you will often find that the shop assistant is almost excessively polite (or courteous). (It’s also possible, of course, that they will be quite brusque or even rude, especially if you are in a supermarket or large out-of-town retail park, but let’s stay with the cultural stereotype for the time being.) If you visit a small, independent shop (not part of a large chain) you will generally find that the person serving you – particularly if it’s the owner – is extremely courteous.

Making polite noises

When you are ready to pay for the goods you have chosen, the shopkeeper will probably ask you a question such as “Is that everything?” or “Have you got everything you need?” If your answer is in the affirmative (“Yes” or ideally, “Yes, thank you”) they will then tell you the total you have to pay – followed, naturally, by “Please” or “Thank you”:

“That’s £15.28 (“fifteen pounds, twenty-eight”), please / Thanks.”

You will then hand over the money. Let’s say you give the shopkeeper (or sales assistant) a twenty pound note. You could say “There you are” or “There you go” – and here most English people would add a “Thanks” or “Thank you”.

The shopkeeper takes the money: “Thank you. That’s twenty pounds.” They then calculate how much change to give you and count out the coins: “Right, that’s four (pounds) seventy-two change”. You, of course, say “Thank you” and the shopkeeper may say “Thank you” as well.

The shopkeeper may then ask you; “Would you like a bag?”. If you need one, you can say, “Yes, please”; if not, say “No thank you.” Of course, if you are not offered a bag you can ask, “Can I have a bag, please.” The shopkeeper will reply, “Certainly” or “Yes, of course.” Don’t forget to add another “thank you” when they hand you the bag or put your purchases in the bag and give it to you. They will then reply, “You're welcome” or perhaps “Thank YOU” stressing the “you”. As you leave the shop (or move away from the counter if you are in a large store) you should say “Bye” and add a “thank you” for good measure.

Does this seem excessively (and even ridiculously) polite to you? If your answer is “Yes” then the chances are that you are not British. Conversely, British people travelling abroad often find foreigners quite rude. Another problem facing native English speakers is that when they use what for them is the “normal” level of politeness the person they are speaking to may actually think they are being (mildly) sarcastic.

Expressions of politeness are undoubtedly influenced by the culture you belong to – but British English in particular seems to be in the “Champions League” of politeness, with only some other languages, such as Japanese, perhaps, demonstrating a higher level of deference. So, if you’re going to visit Britain my advice to you is to mind your “P’s and Q’s” (i.e. (that is) make sure you say “please” and “thank you”) and if you are not sure what to say, say something polite: it will always be appreciated.

Conversation: In a Bookshop

A tourist enters a small bookshop in London, ringing the bell as they open the door. The shopkeeper appears.

Shopkeeper: Hello. How can I help you?

Customer: Oh, hello. I was wondering if you’ve got a guide to places of interest in London (please).

Shopkeeper: Yes, of course. We’ve got a couple of tourist guides in our London section. Come this way, please.

(Customer follows the shopkeeper).

The shopkeeper shows the guides to the customer, who picks one and then they move back to the counter.

Shopkeeper: Right, so that’s “Visting London in A Day” and that’s £12.20 (twelve (pounds) twenty), please OR thank you very much.

Customer: (Giving the shopkeeper a twenty pound note): Thank you.

Shopkeeper: (Taking the banknote). That’s twenty pounds thank you. Would you happen to have the twenty (pence), please?

Customer: Oh, let me see. (Looks in purse). Yes, there you are. (Gives the shopkeeper the coin). Thank you

Shopkeeper: That’s lovely, Thank you. (Gives the customer their change). And that’s four pounds. Thank you.

Customer: Thank you.

Shopkeeper: Would you like a bag?

Customer: Oh, yes, please. (Thank you.)

Shopkeeper: (Puts the book in a bag and hands it to the customer.) There you go. Thank you very much.

Customer: Thank you.

Shopkeeper: Thank YOU.

Customer: (Leaving the shop) Thanks a lot. Bye.

Shopkeeper. You’re very welcome. See you again soon.

Customer: Bye.