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When in Rome …

I’m very fortunate to be writing this in Italy in the beautiful and ancient city of Rome. Anyone who has ever had the joyful opportunity to visit this place will comment on its inspiring atmosphere, it’s ability to link the old with the new, to transcend the centuries. Being here at Easter makes this all the more obvious and poignant.

A famous inhabitant, not of this city but of its glamorous northern partner, Milano, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397 CE) penned a famous phrase often used about Rome, and quoted to me many times during my preparation to visit.

He wrote: “Quando a Roma vai, fai come vedrai’ – literally “when you go to Rome, do what you see”, but more commonly rendered in English, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Such a familiar phrase in reasonably common parlance. So familiar that it’s obvious what it means. Or is it?

This proverb encapsulates a principle of adaptability and cultural sensitivity, advising individuals to conform to the customs and norms of the society they find themselves in. Its origin is often linked to the early Christian church’s efforts to navigate the diverse cultural landscape of the Roman Empire while maintaining its faith and identity.

It’s Christian theological significance notwithstanding, at its core, this saying emphasises the importance of respecting and assimilating into the prevailing customs and traditions of a given community or society. It suggests that when individuals find themselves in unfamiliar or foreign environments, they should, notice,  observe and follow the established practices of the local culture rather than imposing their own beliefs or customs. This adaptability serves not only to avoid conflict but also to foster harmony and goodwill among different groups.

This applies not only to societies and communities but is equally applicable in the organisational context.

Ambrose’s words carry significant implications beyond mere social etiquette, however. They reflect a deeper understanding of the dynamics of cultural interaction and the necessity of flexibility in interpersonal relationships. By encouraging individuals to adopt the behaviours and attitudes of their surroundings, the saying promotes empathy, open-mindedness, and the willingness to learn from others.

Moreover, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” underscores the importance of context and situational awareness. It acknowledges that societal norms and expectations can vary greatly depending on geographical location, historical background, and social dynamics. In essence, it advocates for a pragmatic approach to cultural integration, recognising that adherence to local customs can facilitate social integration and acceptance.

However, it’s essential to note that this proverb does not imply blind conformity or the abandonment of one’s core values or principles. Rather, it encourages a balanced approach that respects both the host culture and individual identity. While adapting to local customs, individuals should remain true to their moral compass and ethical convictions, finding a harmonious balance between assimilation and authenticity.

The relevance of Ambrose’s advice extends far beyond its historical and cultural context. In today’s globalised world, characterised by increasing cultural diversity and interconnectedness, the principle of “when in Rome …” remains as pertinent as ever. Whether traveling to foreign countries, relocating for work, or engaging with organisations across geo-cultural boundaries, individuals encounter situations where cultural sensitivity and adaptability are essential for successful interaction and communication.

St. Ambrose’s timeless maxim serves as a guiding principle for navigating the complexities of cultural diversity and interpersonal relationships. It emphasises the importance of adaptability, empathy, and respect for local customs while maintaining one’s integrity and values. By embracing this philosophy, individuals and organisations can forge meaningful connections, bridge cultural divides, and foster mutual understanding in an increasingly interconnected world.

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