Maltese ‘loud, nosy and religious’

Study by an international team of academics finds that the Maltese consider themselves to be socially intrusive and ‘backward’, but also more predominantly ‘hospitable’ than their European counterparts

Loud, noisy and religious? Ray Attard's photo from the St Paul's feast in Valletta earlier this year on 10 February 2014 captures it all...
Loud, noisy and religious? Ray Attard's photo from the St Paul's feast in Valletta earlier this year on 10 February 2014 captures it all...

With discussions about what constitutes Maltese identity currently in full swing, owing to the myriad national celebrations being prepped this year, an international team of academics will be publishing a paper that seeks to pinpoint some key characteristics of the Maltese national character.

The picture of Malta that emerges from the study is that of a ‘safe haven’ of sorts: a comfort zone, but one whose comfort comes at the price of an over-reliance on a “backwards” attitude towards religion and an overly “nosy” social intrusiveness.

In an anonymous survey to a total of 372 students at the University of Malta aged 17-46 years, and 336 other Maltese nationals from various localities aged between 15 and 89 years, an entire series of attributes deemed to represent the Maltese was presented to them.

Except for “laziness”, all of the attributes received value ratings higher than 4, meaning that these traist were genereally held to be typical of the Maltese character: loud, nosy, religious and short-tempered were regarded as the most typical traits of the Maltese.

The attribution of these traits as distinctive of the Maltese in general is corroborated by the comparison with the attribution by the same sample of the same traits to Europeans, who are mostly regarded as ‘hardworking’ – but at a value of 4.65 only slightly less than the extent to which this trait is attributed to the Maltese, 4.84.

Interesting, for the Maltese, negative traits are held to be more characteristic of the Maltese than positive ones. But positive traits held to also characterise Europeans (i.e. sociable, hardworking, hospitable, happy, helpful, generous, and honest), are accorded higher values to the same Maltese as well. “The Maltese, therefore, and according to the same participants who are themselves Maltese, are both better as well as worse than Europeans in certain ways,” the study found.

Humans of Malta (C) Ryan Galea and Nicky Scicluna
Humans of Malta (C) Ryan Galea and Nicky Scicluna

Noteworthy differences emerged in comparing the student sample with the general population sample. While the general population values the Maltese more positively on the favourable traits, the student sample, on the other hand, mostly accords the Maltese higher negative values on unfavorable traits (except short-temperedness) than does the general population. It is also worth noting that for the general population, it is the ‘generosity’ trait that is mostly representative of the Maltese (M=5.83), as opposed to ‘loud’ for the student sample, whilst for students it is ‘honest’ that fails to emerge as representative of the Maltese character with a mean higher than the neutral midpoint (M=3.93), as opposed to ‘lazy’ in the general population sample.

The study also incorporated three individual interviews with Maltese citizens who emigrated and spent some time living and working in the United Kingdom. The three Maltese people interviewed for the study – ‘Angelika’, ‘Benna’ and ‘Zaren’ – shared many common perceptions of what Malta meant to them, when seen through the perspective of a migrant.

While all three respondents complained about what could be described as traits endemic to Maltese insularity – closed-mindedness, overzealous religious attitudes, racism and a tendency towards gossip – they also found themselves craving the tight-knit community feeling that is part and parcel of the Maltese experience.

The interviews suggest that the positive aspects of Malta are made clearer once Maltese residents have spent some time abroad and are able to compare and contrast Maltese life and its natural character with that of another country. The researchers ultimately propose that this is an integral part of how national identity is formed, at least in resident’s minds.

Interestingly, this also meant that the respondents looked at certain ‘negative’ traits more kindly once they experienced some distance from Malta. For instance, when comparing the Maltese to their more emotionally distant British counterparts, Angelika began to look at the ‘Maltese’ trait of being ‘loud’ more kindly – particularly in relation to laughter in a social context.

“They [the Brits] don’t have a laugh like we do […] you’re still accepted […] you can be yourself, [but] obviously when you’re with Maltese you feel different, when you laugh you laugh from the heart, because that’s where your roots are,” Angelika said, while also emphasising that – perhaps predictably – Maltese communities abroad tend to flock together, further strengthening a perhaps latent community bond, and emphasising local habits and traits.

Another interviewee, Benna, said that while living in the United Kingdom she was made more keenly aware of what she perceived to be intrinsic ‘Mediterranean’ values – such as when she feels “passionate” and “loud”. While also looking at Maltese insularity with suspicion, Benna acknowledged that religion can serve a unifying and comforting function, even saying that she would “like it if there were a religious community [in the UK]”.

Benna also reinforced the conflicted perception of Malta that Maltese people living abroad tend to adopt. While she looks back at Malta “fondly” and enjoys visiting the island, she still ultimately deems it to be too socially intrusive to stomach in the long run.

“It’s more a community life, religion, which is good […] sometimes it’s good and sometimes it isn’t. It’s good because it’s safe, but it’s bad because people follow what you’re doing.”

The third interviewee, Zaren, was also sensitive to the same negative traits outlined by the others – pointing out the ‘nosy’ attitude of the residents once again, as well as a general closed-mindedness, racism and xenophobia – but he also expressed disdain for Maltese people who denigrate Malta openly.

‘Even though he finds much wrong with Malta, [Zaren] still finds that it is “beautiful and can’t be replaced”,’ the study reads. ‘He is ashamed of this, of these people, not of Malta or the Maltese. He does not see why those who live abroad should feel ‘superior’’.

Interestingly, both Benna and Zaren said that the Eurovision Song Contest was another unifying factor for Maltese living abroad.

The study emphasised how, despite the interviewees’ sentimental, nostalgic draw towards Malta, this was however not enough for them to decide to return to Malta permanently.

But the very way in which they were compelled to reassess their cultural identity in light of their experience is telling of the way national identity is constructed, the study concluded.

Set to be published in an Information Age Publishing journal later this year, the paper – entitled ‘Representations and social belonging: An idiographic approach to community and identity’ – found that the Maltese saw themselves as being predominantly ‘loud, nosy and religious’, while also being ‘hospitable’.

Respondents were also asked to compare typical Maltese traits to those of their European counterparts, and what emerged was that the Maltese perceived Europeans to be far less religious than them. Europeans were also considered to be a lot less ‘nosy’ than the Maltese, while the Maltese saw Europeans to be more or less equally as ‘honest’ and ‘hardworking’ as the Maltese.

The paper, penned by Gordon Sammut (University of Malta), Mohammad Sartawi (London School of Economics), Marco Giannini and Chiara Labate (both from Universita degli Studi di Firenze), incorporates a survey of how Maltese University students – as contrasted with a more general sample of the ‘Maltese population’ – view the Maltese population, as well as interviews with three Maltese people who had emigrated to the United Kingdom.

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