Filotimo – The Word with No Translation
The Greek Word No One Can Translate
In researching about Greece before our wonderful Greek adventure, I came across some information which didn’t seem to fit together.
In spite of the financial crisis, the austerity measure, and one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, Greece has one of the highest rates of self-reported happiness in the world.
How is it that the people of Greece are so happy in the face of significant negative issues?
Is it the religion?
The Greeks are a religious group with – reporting that they consider their faith important. But, many countries are made up of people of strong faith. As a matter of fact, Greece isn’t even on the Top 20 Most Religious Countries list.
Is it strong family ties?
Greeks DO have strong family ties. But, so do the Italians and Indians. Many cultures across the globe value a close-knit family. Some countries even have multiple generations of families living in the same house.
What about tradition?
Well, some of the traditions are strong. It is joked that all the men in Greece share 5 names (My son’s name, Kostas, is one of them.) and it does seem to be true. We met SO many Georges! Like, if I had to guess the name of any Greek man I would just start with George. LOL!
The reason is the tradition of naming children after grandparents. Heritage and tradition really bond a group together. Greece is #3 in the list of Top Countries with the Best Heritage.
Is it the mentality of taking life slowly and savoring it?
The Greeks so have the saying, “Siga, siga” which means, “Slowly, slowly”. That could be it….except other countries have this same idea. Italy has “La Dolce Vida” – the sweet life, and Hawaii has “Island Time”.
Then I came upon:
The Greek Question No One Can Answer: What is Filotimo?
Before we left on our trip I looked for a definition of filotimo. By dictionary definition, filotimo means “love of honor’ but everyone agrees filotimo has no English word equivalent.
The Greeks are warm, friendly, and talkative but you can seriously draw silence with the question:
What is Filotimo?
I asked this question as much as possible during our two-week adventure in Greece. I was usually answered with silence and then a shrug and a smile.
The people who did answer with words said:
- doing right in your heart
- showing kindness
- doing good things even when no one sees you
The best equivalent I could come up with in English is the Golden Rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Even that isn’t a perfect translation because it is very clear that with filotimo no one is doing a good deed hoping someone will do something good for them.
The entire idea of filotimo is to give from your heart and NOT because you will get something in return.
Even the Italian saying that I grew up with, “What goes around comes around” seems almost mean-spirited in the face of filotimo.
We saw hints of filotimo everywhere.
The guide told us a story of a local who would bring you into his house to taste his wonderful tomatoes. Not because he wants money from you buying some but because he was proud of his tomatoes.
Many times we were given dessert, at no charge, because they wanted to share something fabulous. No one ever waited for a tip or gave the slightest hint they might be expecting one. We were digging for change to complete the bill once and it was just waved away. We frequented a bakery and were given a cookie here and there – extra, as a gift. We thought that might have been because we had visited the bakery several times and yet we encountered the same extra cookies as a gift at our first bakery visit in other cities.
I thought these might be an example of filotimo, but no. My Greek friend tells me those are examples of Greek hospitality.
Mind you – Greece is in dire financial straits. The people are only allowed to withdraw a certain amount of money per month – no matter how much you have in the bank. Yet, they still give small tokens of friendship and goodwill at every turn.
In the end, I came away from our fabulous trip to Greece feeling a little confused about filotimo. I had only the most general and vague idea of what it was.
We found a fantastic silkscreened painting in Oia, Santorini. It was a numbered print and at 50/50 it was the last one, carefully rolling it up into a cardboard tube for transport. It cost 100 euros and while not the most expensive piece of artwork it wasn’t cheap either.
I mention that because just 2 days later we left it behind on the ferry we took from Santorini to the mainland.
My husband suggested we contact the ferry about a lost and found. Initially, I dismissed the idea thinking, frankly, that if found it would surely be kept as a case of ‘finders keepers’.
But my husband convinced me to reach out. ( I guess he has a better view of humanity than I do.) I half-heartedly emailed a request to our travel agent in Greece to reach out on our behalf. To be completely honest, I expected her not to call them.
But…call she did.
Why did this surprise me? Because she stood not to benefit in any way. She would not earn any money even if I was incredibly appreciative (and I was) because I would likely not return to Greece any time soon. Yet, she called the ferry and emailed me back with the news, “They found a rolled paper.”
Hmmm…..they found a rolled paper? Could this be our rolled up painting in the cardboard tube?
Still not believing someone would have actually turned in our painting, I emailed a description of the painting to the ferry company. I expected my email to be buried, pushed aside for more pressing tasks.
But then, there was a prompt reply. They had found our painting. But, finding our painting and managing to get it all the way across the world are two different things.
Over the next 2 days, I filled out 6 papers for USP. Apparently, it takes a great deal of paperwork to ship something from an EU country to a non-EU country. I marveled at the patience of the ferry staff as these emails went back and forth.
And then, less than a week since I reluctantly made the first phone call….there was our painting on our doorstep in the US.
My very own, personal example of filotimo.
With ZERO possible benefits to each person, each still went out of his or her way to help me, a stranger:
- The travel agent made several phone calls
- The ferry personnel looked for the painting
- Ferry personnel emailed me back and forth and back and forth helping with documents to get it shipped back to the US
- Someone, with nothing to gain, took the package to the post office
There is always a but, right? My dear Greek friend tells me that the above experience is NOT filotimo but good business practices.
This is what she had to say on the subject of my lost and found painting:
“I think the painting situation is not about filotimo, more like good business practice because Greece depends on tourism so much. Sending the lost painting to you is part of business, the people involved didn’t have to give out of themselves to get it to you. Filotimo can be little acts or big acts but they always are about giving or doing whatever is needed when that is not the best for the giver.”
So, this experience, while a really good one, does not qualify. She promised to point out examples of filotimo and I promise to be a good student and continue to try to wrap my head about this fantastic concept. I’ll keep you posted.
The filotimo explanation from my dear Greek friend is this:
“Filotimo is actions that are closer to sacrificing something to accommodate or help someone without advertising it, out of the bottom of your heart, and doing it on impulse and automatically because that’s the right thing to do.
It goes deep and is learned and passed on by observation not by explicitly teaching it or talking about it. Actually, an act that shows lack of filotimo is very much frowned upon and the person is considered selfish.
It makes sense to you to measure the actions against payment but payment is a non-existent notion when it comes to acting out of filotimo.
The English golden rule is off because acts of filotimo don’t ever expect reciprocity, and the Italian motto seems to be the opposite of the spirit of filotimo. Here’s a Greek saying that somewhat describes one aspect of filotimo: do the good deed and throw the knowledge of it in the sea. Or do it and forget it.”
Learning about Cultures
Learning about culture isn’t something you do in a 2-week visit to another country. We merely take a small peek into the other fascinating places and peoples in the world. We take a flavor of it with us when we return home.
Perhaps I will never fully understand the concept of filotimo and perhaps even if I did I would not be able to explain it. No matter. I’m a better person for having heard of it – as are you, and for trying to understand it.
Learn about people. Try to understand. Take a moment to explore that which makes others different and interesting. Use your travels to become a better person and to have your children do the same. The act of learning is a step towards accepting and isn’t that what the world needs more of – desperately?
The word souvenir is French and means ‘To Remember” and this particular souvenir of the lost and found painting has me remembering all that is fantastic about Greece. The beautiful countryside, the beautiful people and the most beautiful untranslatable word ever.
It also reminds me to try spread our own filotimo here at home. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if filotimo was the #1 souvenir from Greece?
If Greece is on your list of things to see – and it should be, you’ll want some more information!
Natalie, The Educational Tourist