2/13/20 - Mi Scusi!
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The Italians DO have a word for “sorrynotsorry,” and it’s just “sorry!”
Hi! This is Coach Sarah, and this is the Morning Mantra!
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Hi, my name is Sarah Axelrod. I'm a run coach and a lover of poetry, and I’m here to put the fun back in profundity. You don't have to be an athlete to be #coachedandloved, and if you need an anchor to hold onto as you move through a tough situation, you've come to the right place.
Today’s mantra is “Mi scusi!!”
Yes, this month, the mantra pod is all about Shady Italian Lessons with Coach Sarah! Hang on, we’re going to go with it. One of the things I love about Italian is the fact that it has the second-person informal you, and the second-person FORMAL You, which actually conjugates as though it were the third person. Spanish does the same thing - the usted - so does French with the vous, though that takes the form of the plural instead of the third person singular.
And here’s why I love the Italian formal: you can throw SO MUCH SHADE while also being “polite.” And what I love about the way the Italian formal is conjugated, as if it were the 3rd person singular, is the indirectness that that gives it. It’s like you’re talking past someone - politely, exquisitely - and with the correct tone of voice, the distance and indirectness of it on a grammatical level just communicates the perfect coolness. “Please excuse me” in the informal - “Scusami” feels like a supplication, a looking someone in the eye and asking for grace, while the formal “Mi scusi” can either be exceedingly polite or a TOTAL sorry-not-sorry. It’s all in the wrist, you see. It’s all in the delivery. And yet, because you’re using the politest words, your shade is cloaked - ha! - in plausible deniability. It’s WONDERFUL to see in action.
Furthermore - this is why I so dearly love the Italian formal - for a foreigner like me, a non-native Italian speaker with blonde hair who exudes not a single iota of Italiannesss, demonstrating your facility with the formal tense is impressive. Showing that you can use it to throw shade is the ULTIMATE flex - no one sees it coming, and it’s DELICIOUS.
With me so far?
When I was in college and preparing to study abroad in Italy, I learned that since i would be enrolling directly in Italian university, I’d be expected to speak to my professors (something that my warm and cuddly liberal-arts-college Italian professors in the U.S. would never have felt comfortable asking me to do). And let me tell you something - there is NO one who can demonstrate to you how unimpressed they are by you, all while addressing you in the formal tense, than a professor in an Italian university. And it shouldn’t be surprising, really, because this is the air academia breathes. In my Italian university classes, almost all exams were oral, and most of them were administered publicly, as in you come to the front of the class, the professor interrogates you in front of all your peers, then they pronounce their assessment of how well you did for all to hear as they write your grade in your libretto universitario and send you back to your seat. Some students literally attend zero classes for the whole semester - they just read the book and sit the exam - so the exam often begins with the student and the professor making actual eye contact for the first time, and the professor, from a supreme distance, posing the question: “e Lei, chi è?” “And you, are who?”
I cannot tell you what a revelation this was to me, this tone. In my Italian textbook back at school in the US, we were always prompted to practice the formal tense in situations that actually required formality, genuine formality, and respect. That was the cue to use the formal. What I learned while sitting in those classes, overhearing conversations, and generally living and breathing this language was that the formal was actually a gateway to a world of nuance in how you see someone. Perhaps most importantly, it is a way of keeping a certain distance, and sometimes you keep your distance to protect yourself when someone is pushing your buttons. Since we don’t have a formal tense in English, though - we don’t have that grammatical cloak to hide behind when someone’s being IN OUR FACE, IMpolite, asking personal questions that you do not owe them an answer to (believe it or not, many Italian are good at that) and we want to remain above the fray instead of lying down beneath it.
During my pregnancy with my daughter, I spent the summer in Italy teaching study abroad, and Italians in general felt ZERO qualms about commenting on how big I was. How far along was I? ONLY SEVEN MONTHS? Was I having twins? I looked like I was about to pop! As MUCH as this triggered me every time, the Italian formal “get the fuck away from me” was my safety blanket, which I held in front of my face every time. “Mi scusi, ma...Lei, chi è?” In English, we translate this literally as “sorry, but WHO are you?” and that’s actually what you’re saying, but put in this way, it sounds more like “Please excuse me, but who is the person in my presence right now?” The Lei gives it a veneer of politeness while not actually requiring you to cede a single inch of your territory.
The Italian formal is a state of mind, my friends. It’s a stepping back from a situation where someone is demanding that you wade into conversational territory you do not wish to with the most AGGRESSIVE politeness. Who is this person and WHY would they do that?
Now, I realize that Shady Italian lessons with Coach Sarah feel UNCOMFORTABLE to actually deploy in real life. Maybe you don’t want to burst into Italian neo-avant garde poetry when someone’s being a know it all, and I get that. We don’t have the formal to hide behind, and it’s a shame, but we’ll borrow the Italian one, just for today. When someone asks you if you’re having triplets that is when you get to RUN to the bathroom or to the jukebox or to someone over there who just DESPERATELY needs a word with you, and you can take your leave with a perfectly polite “MI SCUUUUSI!” You’re not really apologizing, you’re throwing Italian shade, and if they ask - subject change! - why yes you HAVE been taking lessons.
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