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For Rome’s Taxi Drivers, Lessons in Courtesy and Cultural Savvy

ROME — For most visitors to Rome, the city gets high marks for its monuments, food, temperate climate and laid-back lifestyle — the dolce vita.

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For Rome’s Taxi Drivers, Lessons in Courtesy and Cultural Savvy
, New York Times

ROME — For most visitors to Rome, the city gets high marks for its monuments, food, temperate climate and laid-back lifestyle — the dolce vita.

But Roman cabbies often get a failing grade.

Social media is rife with cautionary tales of rip-offs and swindles, often involving scenic — but unsolicited — drives past Rome’s historic sights or taxi meters that spin faster than they probably should.

It hasn’t been the best calling card for the Italian capital, especially as cabbies are often the first locals tourists interact with.

Which is why on a recent morning a few dozen cabdrivers found themselves in a nondescript hotel room taking a crash course in “courtesy, hospitality, language and excellence.”

The six-week course aims to improve how taxi drivers deal with foreign customers, including how to dispense basic information in a variety of languages.

“Maybe it’s asking too much that they know art history in detail,” said Maria Cristina Selloni, the director of the municipal tourism department, which developed the curriculum. “But a few anecdotes would be welcome, as well as advice on what shows or exhibits visitors should see. Plus a smattering of conversation.”

Around 750 of Rome’s 6,000 taxi drivers have signed up to take the course, which also explores the complexities of cultural differences and the basics of common courtesy. The city tourism department has tailored similar courses for hotel staffs and private hospitality enterprises like Airbnb.

Selloni said the demand for hospitality training had become urgent in recent years with a significant increase in tourists from China and the Middle East. Hence the course offers an overview of social norms in various cultures, including national proxemics (the amount of expected personal space), nonverbal communication and potentially offensive hand gestures.

“Someone has to tell the poor taxi driver that you can’t be the first to offer your hand to an Arab woman or touch a Chinese person’s luggage unless they say so,” said Selloni, who noted that the European Union had designated 2018 the “E.U.-China Tourism Year,” and that many Asian visitors to Rome were expected.

About half of the course is devoted to languages, mostly English — a smattering of phrases like “Have a nice day,” “traffic jam” and “Please don’t smoke in the taxi” (which could apply to drivers themselves, it was pointed out) — but also Arabic and Mandarin.

“How do you say 48 in Chinese?” — the price in euros of a ride from Rome’s city center to the airport — one cabbie asked Haohao Zheng, a teacher who had the class in conniptions trying to get them to pronounce “xie xie” (thank you), explaining that the sound was similar to that made “by old women without any teeth.”

Zheng’s lessons also delved into Chinese geography, history, traditions, travel requirements and cultural faux pas, including some tips that might not necessarily come in handy on an ordinary ride. (Avoid physical contact. Be careful how you put chopsticks into rice. Avoid talking about politics, though “food and sports are OK.”)

Franco Rossi, a taxi driver and aspiring Chinese speaker, said he appreciated the training. “It’s a pleasure when a tourist finds someone who speaks their language,” he said. “It’s a form of respect.”

The language instruction was calibrated to put the drivers at ease.

“We Italians are some of the biggest communicators — just think of how we are always using our hands — but when we speak in English we become penguins,” said Marco Cigna, the chief executive of the John Peter Sloan school, which won the tender for the course along with other partners. When it comes to foreign languages, he said, “Italians become completely shy. We have to change that.”

Rome is visited by around 14 million tourists each year, and the feedback they share online has a considerable effect on tourism, as Guendalina Iafrate, a tourism expert and program docent, emphasized to the class. “No one returns to a place where they’ve been treated badly, nor will they tell others to go,” she said.

“We must start thinking of tourists as guests, someone we give hospitality to,” Iafrate said, gently addressing complaints logged against cabdrivers. “No one likes the feeling of being ripped off, but there is a notion among some people that tourists are like geese that lay golden eggs,” she said.

“You are creators of experience,” she told the class. “Positive word-of-mouth publicity is what will give work to your kids.” Other teachers emphasized cultural differences: Why some cultures tip. Why some are more touchy-feely. Why some are apt to complain more than others.

“We eat horse — that grosses out British people,” said Francesca Marzolini, a tourism expert whose lessons meandered from the historical to the political to the stereotypical. “Some people eat animal placenta; in China they eat dogs.”

“We have to understand what is behind other customs,” she said. “At home you can like it or not, but when you work you have to be professional.”

Selloni, the tourism director, said another important objective was to make taxi drivers — who have often come to loggerheads with city officials over contentious issues — feel more a part of the city whose streets they know so well.

“It’s always disappointing to ask a cabdriver for information and get a shrug in response,” said Selloni, whose office plans to give the drivers regular updates on events taking place in Rome. “They are the key to the city.” One driver, Umberto Nucci, said he was glad to have taken the course.

“In our work English is fundamental — it allows you to speak to anyone from anywhere, even if it’s only a few words, like ‘Do you like Rome?’ said Nucci, whose taxi consortium has sponsored other language courses for its members in the past. “It puts a client at ease.”

And, he said, “it’s important to make people understand that not every taxi driver is a bandit.”

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