La cazzimma:

Learning to be the loudest voice in the room
21 Feb 2019

Girl, Interrupted

‘A cazzimma. It’s another one of those terms that is difficult to translate and that Italians — and more specifically, Neapolitans — revere. In essence, it’s a combination of cunning, grit, and arrogance. A sort of knowing what you’re worth and knowing when to give up — or not to; those with ‘a cazzimma very seldom do, and that’s kind of the point.

It’s not an altogether positive quality to display. Having cazzimma means being willing to stop at nothing to advance your personal agenda, even if it means betraying friends, family, loved ones. It is hard to balance integrity with the kind of cut-throat attitude needed in the Italian south merely to get ahead of one’s peers, let alone to get to the top of the tribe. In order to be noticed, your voice has to drown out the others. It has to be the loudest and most assertive in the room. It has to rise above the competition, and rest assured: there is lots of it.

Returning to this concept of cazzimma, which I hadn’t thought about in a while, helps explain another distinctly Italian phenomenon: the very common practice of interrupting one another.

I remember my doctoral dissertation supervisor encouraging his group of graduate students, gathered around his dining room table for an end of semester convivial lunch, to interrupt each other — and him. “Jump in, guys,” he told us, “and don’t apologize for it. You know that’s how they do it in Italy. It’s not considered impolite to interrupt. It’s just what people do.”

He was right, of course. Among friends, in social gatherings, in an informal setting, Italians often do talk over each other unapologetically, and no one takes offence. There isn’t any pretence about it, either. When teaching one of my adult learners of English about “small talk” and “polite exchanges,” one of the questions the text book we were using prompted was, “Do people from your country prefer talking or listening? Do you prefer talking or listening?” Her answer, both times, was the former — she, and her countrymen, both preferred talking, she said. But she thought that was a silly question. Wasn’t it clear to the world that Italians paid more attention to the things they said themselves than to those said by the people around them? Just walk into a room, she said. You’ll see it for yourself.

She was being tongue-in-cheek, but our conversation later revealed a level of truth to her statement. In dealing with English-speaking colleagues, she’d had to be careful about stepping on toes or contributing her thought at an inopportune moment — something she’d never felt self-conscious about in her Italian workplace.

In fact, if you take her advice and walk into a room of Italians, and listen very, VERY carefully, you’ll see that while Italians often do talk over each other, they also display a keener-than-most ability to listen at the same time. Often, built into their uninterrupted speech is a response to something you’ve just said, half-expecting it to go undetected or be buried in your conversation partner’s stream of thought. In other words, Italians talk over each other, but they don’t ignore each other. Far from it. Rebutting a point made without breaking your stride is a display of rhetorical prowess. A convincing show of cazzimma. Your voice truly is the loudest in a room — without being the only one present.

Of course in formal settings, international rules of etiquette apply. If there to listen, one listens. If there to speak, one speaks. The authority in the room commands respect, and those there to benefit from his or her wisdom acquiesce. These carefully outlined social constructs degenerate only when the authority in a room is distributed among equally-qualified peers, or in a conversation among listeners each competing to be the most noticed. Then, the gloves come off. All’s fair in love and war. And though Italian conversation is not exactly war, there is something of sport in it. A fanning of feathers. A sparring match. Not for nothing, Italy has produced so many fencing champions, especially in recent years. It, like Italian conversation, is an elegant dance ever in motion. A battuta-risposta that seeks no reprieve for reflection. It is instantaneous and sanguine, but, at its best, never plebeian.

In fencing, as in conversation and in life, it is best always to be prepared and to come equipped. With a mask. With a turn of phrase. With the willingness to seize an opportunity when it arises. With la cazzimma in its various guises.