La Brutta Figura: Making a bad impression

La Brutta Figura: Making a bad impression

As a Londoner arriving in provincial Italy it is fair to say I was a fish out of water.  Fresh faced and bursting with enthusiasm for my new home, with a wealth of world travel behind me, I wasn’t going to let inhibition stand in my way.  Little did I know how many social faux pas (or passi falsi, when in Rome eh…) lay ahead.

Rule number one in the unwritten Italian guide to integrating and not being shunned from every social event, is making sure that in no uncertain circumstances you should EVER risk displaying or doing La brutta figura. What on earth is that? I’ll explain, trust me, I found out the hard way.

In a land of beautiful people, who pride themselves on their appearance, their homes and their food and where the national sport is la passeggiata it is inevitable that you will be observed, judged and therefore gossiped about should you act in unfavourable way.  Giving so much importance to how you are perceived, the Italians would rather stitch their mouths shut and forever forfeit another morsel of pasta rather than show themselves in a bad light.  The goal therefore is always to make a bella figura a good impression, rather than a brutta figura a bad, or literally ugly impression.

A brutta figura can be anything from being drunk in public (oops) to being seen in public with dirty clothes (oops again).  But it doesn’t stop there. Bad dinner parties, mother-in-law jokes, a clapped out banger of a car, running out of change in the supermarket and forgetting someone’s name all would fall under this category.  Guilty, guilty, guilty. Bear in  mind that I’ve been known in England to go to the pub in my pyjamas on a Sunday night.  This was not going to be an easy transition for me.

If you’re a tourist or from a big city, you are used to being anonymous.  You go about your daily life not even realising how much of a goldfish bowl you are living in.  But of course in a small town where everyone knows, has dated or in some 7-degrees-of-separation thing is related to each other you are going to stick out like a sore thumb  It might be ignoring the teeny tiny peanut spoon and going for it with your fingers, it might be wearing a short sleeved t-shirt in February, it might be interpreting karaoke as another word for drunken singing as you always have. Whatever it is, you will make a brutta figura but at least the Italians are so caught up on the bella figura that you will never know!

The problem with the bella/brutta figura is that it can sometimes mean that things can be slightly artificial, a smile a bit too sparkly and people trying that little bit too hard.  After all, hasn’t everyone asked for more penis (pene) instead of more pasta (penne) in a restaurant?



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13 thoughts on “La Brutta Figura: Making a bad impression”

  • If I am a tourist in a place that I barely know, I will also aim to give a good impression to them so they will response good to me in return. After all, as what they usually say, a first impression is always the last so even I am going to stay in such place just for a short period of time, i would rather leave a good impression to them..
    the negative side however of forcing yourself to leave a good impression is that you are trying so hard to please people without being true to yourself… you are letting other embrace the kind of person they want to see and not the real you that they should really see and embraced…
    I hope I get your point ^_^

  • It’s a new learning for me. I didn’t know that I’m being brutta figura most of the time. But here’s the point. I don’t please nobody so I think it’s just normal for me to be brutta figura than la bella figura. The ‘bella’ word just makes every statement so pretty.

  • Truly, this is an enlightening post. Actually, it’s an eye opener for me. I really didn’t think I could qualify as a la brutta figura at times. But, you cannot please everyone. I rather still be myself and be who I am than be someone that I’m not. What do you think? 🙂

  • Wow, this blog post just made me read it twice. It is interesting and somehow a new post that I have just read. I haven’t been traveling much to other countries and this post just made me a new idea. I like how you briefly elucidated the attitude of a local people in a certain place and learning a new word from a foreign tongue is somewhat amazing. I can truly assure myself that I’m going to show a “bella figura” whenever I visit to a new place. It is a sign of respect for the locals as well.

  • Wow! This is a new knowledge for me. Brutta Figura is something i would remember from now on. Well, as for being a tourist, whenever we travel i always pack well thought of outfits. I think it depends solely on the kind of person u are but for me i like dressing up well and i believe dressing appropriately whether to make an impression or not is very basic for any traveler. You do not want to get into trouble anyway in a whole new place where you dont have anyone to rely to but yourself.. 🙂

  • This is a timely post. We will be traveling far from our place tomorrow. I haven’t packed anything yet and I should be picking the top choices, I guess. I do not want to be talked about because of my poor appearance. Before, I would dress neatly and I could easily impress others. But now with four kids and very much pregnant, I would dress anything comfortable. Now, as I leave the house, I will always see to it to look every inch presentable, not only to give myself some dignity but to show respect to the locals of the place we will be visiting.

  • I think leaving a good impression is universal. In big cities, people are too busy to care. But it doesn’t hurt to always put our best foot forward. Not only will be gain “bella figura” but what’s important is that it won’t be difficult for people to treat us with respect.

  • Oh cool! New thing learned today, thank you. 🙂 Hmmm, it’s really very valuable to know a country’s culture, quirks, habits, and all the little things beforehand, but you really can’t learn everything until you’re there I guess. 🙂 I’m glad nothing more traumatizing happened to you, but I doubt you’d let that affect you.

  • Wow, I’ve been to Italy twice and it’s my first time hearing about this expression. In hindsight, I now feel like I must have been a brutta figura on multiple occasions lol. I guess this just goes to show that you always need to brush up on the cultural nuances of a place before going!

  • The most important thing about traveling is getting familiar with other cultures, traditions, customs as well as nature of people living in the places you are visiting. So, before visiting, it is good to make a short research and see what is rude and what not. However, it seems that Italians really have some strict rules. So, I would definitely be la brutta figura there for many reasons.

  • This is a very insightful post. I love the fact that people are unique and YOLO, and that sometimes they do not care about what other people think but this doesn’t always work out and sometimes there are customs, cultures that they have to adhere to. I love how La Brutta Figura can be so easy to understand yet so complex and vast. Very interesting blog post <3

  • At the end of the day, what’s considered poor in taste in one place can be considered polite in another. These things take time getting used to (i.e. who pays for someone’s birthday dinner), but as people from different cultures meet the understanding grows and people will stop going by first impressions.

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