When I moved to Sweden, I attended a lecture by a sociologist specialised in Swedish culture who gave some tips on how to better interact with and understand the inhabitants of my Scandinavian host country. The guy explained, for example, how a Swede finishes his sentences before another contributes to the conversation; a far cry from the Mediterranean style of having three people talk at the same time (hopefully on the same subject) within the same conversation!
Though no sociologist myself, I’ve attempted a list of certain common characteristics which I dare to say are Maltese.
Talking is shouting
When many Maltese people talk, they tend to be rather loud. Years back, I used to work as a group leader for Scandinavian kids learning English in Malta. On several occasions, these kids mistook a friendly conversation between two locals as a fight! I suppose the loud tone of voice, the vivid hand gestures and the occasional physical contact gave that impression. When in a conversation with a Maltese person who just doesn’t stop blabbering, it might be a good idea to interrupt them if you have something to say. They might actually be waiting for you to share the speaking duties! The average Maltese conversationalist won’t pause that often, so you need to create your own opening most times (unless you’re given an easy entry by being asked a question). Yes – we’re loud… but it’s all rather harmless (most of the time)!
Us and them
I get the feeling that Maltese people have a predisposition towards creating an ‘us and them’ scenario. Whether it’s the rivalry created by politics, football or even affection for a particular village festa or affiliation to a specific band club, the Maltese do tend to get rather clannish. The outcome of this ‘tribalism’ ranges from fun teasing and competition (such as with healthy football rivalries) to scenarios which are much less fun. Political and even festa or band club rivalries have tended to get way out of hand in the past. Nowadays, there’s also a sentiment of ‘us and them’ creeping in with relation to the presence of certain foreigners on the island.
Rules are there to be broken.
Many Maltese people seem to have a strange relationship with rules, sometimes closing an eye – or even two – in the process. This is positive when a person is given precedence over a rule in the name of common sense. It is less positive when people ignore rules and get away with it for their own selfish needs. Politicians tend to be major culprits on this last point. When driving, Maltese people tend to break the rules – though the extent of this ranges from person to person: some commit minor infractions, but others put lives at risk through their selfishness.
Families tend to be close to each other.
This is no doubt helped by the geographical proximity we share with each other. In recent years, the family bonds seem to be somewhat weakening but you will still find families meeting up rather often – and not just immediate family but also cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. You will also find that there are less than the classical ‘six degrees of separation’ between people around here … many times just one degree suffices! This obviously has its advantages and disadvantages.
Wholly Roman Catholics?
According to the CIA World Factbook (no less), 98% of the Maltese population are Catholics. But while the Church still has a strong political influence on the country (we still have no divorce or abortion, for example), it has much less of an influence on people’s daily lives than before. And I get the impression that Church attendance among younger generations is declining. While older generations may still get scandalised by certain discussions and behaviours, the younger generations of Maltese are much less likely to do so. Nevertheless, they too are probably still somewhat more closed minded than their northern European counterparts.
In the end…
When you build a strong friendship with a Maltese person, it’s a friendship for life! So, despite the defects (and which culture doesn’t have any?) it’s worth making the effort to see through the differences and embrace what is positive in the Maltese.
Photo: Andrew Galea Debono