When in Rome…

Why our behavior is the best teacher.

Rome as seen from the Pincio Promenade at Villa Borghese.

When we visited Rome in early June (Our 28th destination since we started the Future of Education research project) we couldn’t helped but to think of the old saying: “When in Rome…”

The kids wanted to know what it meant of course, and we explained that the full line “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a phrase that advises to observe and behave in the way you see people behaving wherever you visit.

Personally I remember using the phrase mostly during my years at advertising agencies, when arriving new to a new job, working with a new client or hiring new staff, the words would be used to relate the idea of “observe, learn the culture and fit in”.

Looking back I feel like “fit in” it’s probably the worst kind of advice to give (The kind that it’s half right, half wrong.)

Like it happens whenever kids ask me questions, I looked the story up on google.

The phrase is attributed to Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as St. Ambrose, who, even though he was educated in Rome, was named Bishop of Milan in 374 AD.

St Ambrose.

During the 4th century, as Christianity had just been legalized by Constantine, there was a lot of debate around the definition of the theology of the church, and different points of view were fighting for ownership of the right way of being a Christian.

It is in this context that St. Ambrose displayed his famous liturgical flexibility: “When I’m at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I’m at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.”

Overtime, the phrase has been modified and simplified to the phrase we know and use today to communicate: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” (Observe, learn and adopt the customs of people where you are)

So in Madrid we stayed up late at night enjoying friends and conversations at terrazas. In Athens we carried our backpack on the front and we didn’t drink or eat at the Subway (The cleanest we’ve ever seen). In Parma we stayed off the streets between 2pm and 5pm, when the merchants closed and everybody retreated home. In Rio we dressed down and in Milan we dressed up. In New York speed up our pace and and in New Orleans or Granada we slowed down. And while in Lima we made sure not to use our mobiles while walking around the streets.

When in Rome we actually observed trash everywhere, people waiting patiently for delayed and broken down buses, and hurried people who kept to themselves.

We actually didn’t want to do like the Romans while in Rome, and left after just 3 days.

All throughout our travels we’ve reflected often about the things we’ve seen, the differences between cultures, between the prices at food markets, the public transport, the way different people deal with foreigners, or what’s the rhythm of a city at 6am and at 11pm.

We’ve learned a lot (and quickly) about the underlying rules, habits and customs of the locals by just observing the way they behave.

Because the way we behave when nobody is looking (even thought somebody is always watching, specially with kids around) are the habits and routines that define who we are. And they let others know about our values and our principles.

I’m sure that my kids know by now that when my favorite sport team loses, it changes my mood. I can talk all I want about how (ideally) it doesn’t, but my behavior gives it away.

The most impactful thing about being a role model is not that you are an example, but rather that they will follow the example.

We learn from early age to copy the behavior of those around us, and it never really changes.

As parents, we are setting a model of behavior that eventually becomes their behavior. With subtleties of course, there is no bigger influencer on our kid’s future than the behavior they see at home day in, day out.

I’m obsessive, I love to read, sports and movies and I’m a clean freak.

Wanna guess who was like that too?

Model behavior is not just the best way for kids to learn, it is the way we learn at any age, period.

I often regret forgetting the fact that my kids notice everything I do. There are some hardwired reactions I wish were different, some bad habits I hope to get rid of soon.

I know the kids are taking unconscious mental notes, and I need to help them make sense of what they see: I’m not perfect, I am learning to be a father just like you are learning to become yourself. Let’s do this together and help each other in the process.

Discovering how wheat grows and what it feels like in Parma, Italy.

I hope I can model the respect I have for them and their growing journey. And I hope that I can model my optimism about their ability to become who they need/choose to become and to remain flexible during the process.

That to me is the hidden value of the phrase as stated by St. Ambrose.

When in Milan do as the Milanese do. Learn from the local customs and remain flexible. Each place is different, and that’s the true richness of humanity. Our diversity is our unfair advantage.