If You Were One of Us You Could Speak Dialect: Foreignness and Belonging


identity; belonging; expatriate; integration; assimilation; language


The context of this case study is a social encounter between two professional couples who live and work in the same southern Italian city. One couple is American, the other Italian. The case study details a turn of events at the end of a casual dinner that brings issues of identity, cultural difference, belonging and language to the fore.


Ellen and Thomas are an American couple who spend long periods in Italy for Ellen’s work as an international consultant. Ellen has consulted for an organization for the past three years, spending five to six months annually in the geographically remote medium-sized southern Italian city where the main office is located. She speaks fluent Italian, having studied the language intensively for over a decade. In her previous position, she led small-group tours for Americans to Italian destinations. Ellen’s hard-earned linguistic competency and breadth of her familiarity with that country are important elements of her professional identity and in her sense of self. Thomas also speaks some Italian, and was recently granted Italian citizenship based on his descent from Italian grandparents who immigrated to the United States as children. It took five years and much effort to complete the citizenship application process, and Thomas is proud that he now holds both Italian and US passports.

The province where Ellen works is mostly rural and coastal and is known for its distinctive cultural heritage. It is common for native-born Italians to speak a local dialect in addition to the national language.  People native to this southern province speak a dialect with Greek, French, and Spanish influences (a testimony to the area’s complex history of migration, colonization, foreign domination, and maritime trade). The province’s popularity among foreigners is growing; several hundred British, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Northern Europeans have moved there to look for work, raise families, or retire. Many choose this far-flung province in part because they consider it a place where they can integrate into local society rather than be absorbed into an expatriate enclave. Ellen and Thomas, in fact, purchased a small home in the city center two years ago where they plan to return for part of the year annually after Ellen’s contract finishes two years from now.  Relations among expatriates and locals are generally good, although lack of local employment opportunities sometimes causes strain when Italians and expatriates compete for the same opportunities. Ellen experienced that tension firsthand when she arrived in the city and realized that some colleagues neglected to invite her to group meetings or did not freely share information that she needed in order to contribute fully.

Ellen and Thomas socialize regularly with Italian and expatriate colleagues and friends, volunteer for a local charity, and consider themselves members of the community. In this city it is customary to invite dinner guests to restaurants rather than entertain at home. The person who extends the invitation normally pays, although close friends usually “pay roman style” (pagare alla romana), dividing the bill equally without regard to whether one meal costs more than another.

Among the couples with whom Ellen and Thomas socialize are bookstore owners Maria and Francesco. Both were born in this province. A month earlier, Maria and Francesco took Ellen and Thomas to dinner for the first time. The Americans wanted to return their hospitality, and invited them to meet at a new pizzeria. On the appointed evening, Ellen and Thomas arrive early and ask the waiter to bring Ellen the bill the at the end of the meal as she is host. The waiter promises to do so.

At the end of the evening, Thomas motions to the waiter for the bill. When the waiter returns, both Francesco and Ellen reach for the bill. Ellen says quickly, “It’s our turn to treat!.” The waiter hesitates, holds the bill in the air between the two couples for a moment, then gives it to Francesco. Francesco says, “Don’t worry. When we are in your city you can pay, when you are in our city we will pay.” Although Francesco’s behavior can be interpreted as considerate, this is not the first time that Ellen and Thomas have experienced difficulty paying for meals for Italian colleagues or friends and it is for this reason they arrived early to speak with the waiter. Frustrated by this turn of events, Ellen points out that she and Thomas reside in this city and feel as at home here as in the United States.  Maria, also upset, begins speaking to the waiter in dialect. She turns to Ellen and says in Italian, “You see, you can’t understand me. If you were one of us, you could speak our dialect, not just Italian.”

Ellen continued to reflect on why this incident had left her so disconcerted. Her gut reaction had been that Maria was reminding her and Thomas that they were foreigners in Italy.  Yet in fact, Maria had simply said that Ellen could not speak dialect and, on that basis, was not one of them. It then occurred to Ellen that although fluency in the national language was necessary for success in her work and daily life, this encounter suggested that Italian language proficiency was not a sufficient condition for full integration and acceptance as a non-outsider.  Perhaps her Italian friends and colleagues who had relocated to this city had experienced something similar, and Ellen wondered how it had made them feel.  She also thought about whether her having come from a country where most people are monolingual had influenced her reaction. After all, she had devoted much time, effort, and expense to learning Italian. But she had never considered whether the ability to speak in both Italian and in dialect may matter to some people more than others, where, and why.  Ellen then realized that, although speaking Italian allowed her to engage deeply with local life, she must reconcile herself to the fact that however long she remained in her community some cultural gatekeepers would likely consider her an outsider, even if they accepted her as a friend.

Discussion Questions

As you consider this case, discuss:

  • What does it mean to belong to a place or to feel that you belong? Is it necessary that you be born in a particular place to belong there? Who decides?
  • Are there stages or markers of assimilation to a new community? What might they be?
  • Consider the terms expatriate, immigrant, citizen, and native. What do they suggest about the relationships among identity and the place where one is born or chooses to live? What are the connotations of these labels (e.g., positive and negative associations)?
  • On what basis do the Americans consider themselves part of the community? Why might the ascribed identity of “outsider” cause them distress? What are some reasons the Italian couple might consider them outsiders?
  • What cultural or social factors (e.g., gender, age, education, relative income, life experience) may have also influenced this scenario?
  • Think about the custom of paying “roman style.” What expectations surround paying for meals in the cultures and subcultures with which you are most familiar? What do those expectations suggest about a culture’s values and beliefs?
  • Ellen’s professional title is “international consultant.” How might local colleagues feel about the company’s decision to hire a well-paid long-term international consultant from the United States or even from another part of Italy rather than to promote a local person? Are there steps that can be taken to help identify, interrupt or neutralize the potential for negative attitudes and feelings?
  • Expatriates relocate for many reasons including lifestyle preference, employment, affection, adventure and more. How might growth in numbers of people who choose to expatriate affect traditional ideas about national, place-based, or ethnic identities?
  • Did Francesco’s reference to “our city” and “your city” suggest that, to his way of thinking, regardless of Ellen and Thomas’ status as local property owners, speakers of Italian, and Thomas’ dual citizenship, they were simply “visitors” to the province just as Francesco and Maria would consider themselves visitors if they went to the United States for a two week vacation?
  • Imagine if the roles in this scenario were reversed, with Maria and Francesco living part-time in the United States. What might be different about how they are perceived by others as well as their own sense of belonging in their new home? To that point, what does it mean to be “integrated” in a new community? Can full integration ever be achieved?

Additional Resources

Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.

  • Green, N. Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept. The American Historical Review 114, no. 2 (2009): 307-328. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.114.2.307
  • Sias, P., J. Drzewiecka, M. Meares, R. Bent, Y. Konomi, M. Ortega, and C. White. Intercultural Friendship Development. Communication Reports 21, no. 1 (2008): 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/08934210701643750
  • Trundle, K. Americans in Tuscany. Charity, Compassion, and Belonging. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2014.

Corresponding Author

Schiller, Anne. George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA. Email: schiller@gmu.edu