The Magic of Fake Italian

Comedic sublimation serves a pivotal role in human communication. It allows for socially unappetizing or emotionally-challenging messages to be sent and received without triggering some of our most common defense mechanisms. The use of self-parody, self-deprecation, and other forms of emotional sleight-of-hand tends to reduce tension, and allows for difficult but necessary things to be said.

That’s why our team uses Fake Italian.1

Fake Italian came to my attention by way of Mr. Steve Albini, Montana native and Chicago resident. You may know him from the band Shellac, for instance, or his very fine recording studio, Electrical Audio. And less well known, but immensely entertaining and useful, his food blog. His description of Fake Italian comes from the forthcoming and highly anticipated Hargrove House documentary, “Couldn’t You Wait: The Story of Silkworm.”

Fake Italian emerged, in the modern form in which we apply it, out of the experiences shared by Albini, his bandmates, and the members of  Silkworm.2 Touring with Shellac and Silkworm was the Sicillian band Uzeda and its guitarist,  Agostino Tilotta, whose spoken English carried within its measured tones the seeds of communicative nirvana:

The money quote:

Fake Italian is just so much easier on you. It allows you to say things in a way that doesn’t offend anybody if you want to say something that’s critical. It makes mundane things more entertaining to talk about, and it plays with everyone’s sense of the absurd.

It’s been my experience that many people struggle with the ability to provide criticism without incurring shame, embarrassment, or wrath. Vast amounts of time are spent constructing stylized edifices of avoidance, disingenuousness and bald-faced lying. It’s actually much more damaging to someone—especially if you happen to care about them—to neglect providing genuine feedback. Still, saying those kinds of things to people is not always easy. All of this can be avoided with the simple application of Fake Italian.



Alice: Hi, here’s the model on our performance over the last month. We spent a lot of time putting the initial data together, but we didn’t get a chance to really work through it in much detail. I know you were looking for some specific answers like we talked about. The data’s there, but we couldn’t really answer any of those questions. Sorry.

Bob: Wait. Uh. Um. (sputtering; face reddening)

Carol: (in Fake Italian) Alice, this model. She reminds me of a sandwich, a sandwich full of delicious flavors waiting to satisfy a person with a deep hunger. This sandwich, she was made by a thoughtful deli worker, with love and attention, early in the morning, in a room filled with the smell of freshly baked bread, on a day rich with the promise of satisfaction from a sandwich well-made. Her lettuce was once green, the deep green of the fields at harvest time as the sun peaks in the sky. Her tomatoes, with a rosy hue that shines plumply as they tumble to the counter, full of sweet and subtle flavors. Her meats, carefully carved from the most delicately roasted cuts of tender ham, turkey and the rarest and most delicate beef. Her bread, golden like the afternoon sun, and fluffy like the clouds in the sky. But instead of being served at lunch, when desire and deliciousness could come together in the heart of a famished person, this sandwich, she sat in the deli counter all the day. Nobody paid her attention; nobody saw what she could become for a hungry person. And her lettuce, it wilted. Her tomatoes became soft and chalky. Her meats began to droop and become shiny. Her bread softened into paste. She is no longer a sandwich of love, but a sandwich of…absence.

Alice: (realizing) I…uh…ah…that is…

Bob: I’m feeling a bit peckish, myself.

Carol: In the next month, we will all eat sandwiches…together!

Alice: You got it, Carol. (smiling)


So there you have it. For most organizations I’ve been in, that conversation would have gone either one of two ways: acrimonious/accusatory or aloof/absent. With Fake Italian in the mix, the right message was sent, without an excess of unnecessary difficulty.

Maestro Albini3 offers wonderful examples on how to incorporate flora and fauna into your Fake Italian in the video above. Our team has found these to be extremely effective, but they are certainly not the only choices available. Just like Fake Italian itself, it has to come from your heart. So if you grew up on a farm, use agricultural constructions. If you study  metallurgy, talk about ores and the Mohs scale. Work in software? Talk about text editors. Some other avenues of potential Fake Italian simile, analogy and metaphor include:

– popular music
– genre motion pictures
– commonly-viewed television programs
– fiction and literature
– bodily processes

One note on delivery. Unlike your more complicated accents for the vocally impression-challenged, even poorly executed Fake Italian is comprehensible. In fact, in certain cases an earnest but hilariously incompetent Fake Italian accent defuses the tension of direct criticism so much so that the actual hard part is over after the first few words.

Try it.

  1. And my friends. And my family, though truth be told, Fake Italian is not as effective on small children, or the less subtle. []
  2. What superlatives can begin to encompass the experience of listening to and loving (yes, loving, unashamedly) Silkworm? It’s the same problem as e.g. the Minutemen. Life-saving, perhaps? []
  3. This label applied with absolutely 100% sincerity. Perfect description. []

Mid-Sized Company Growth, Specialists, Loss of Context and the Television Pilot Conversation from Pulp Fiction

When working with specialists, context is everything.

When I ran a startup, I tended to gravitate towards and hire people with a multi-disciplinary focus. I liked hiring people that wrote code but also understood interaction design. I wanted people who liked managing clients but were also obsessed with data. I liked hiring visual designers who understood marketing strategy. Those sorts of generalists are critical in a start-up, because you don’t have the capital or time to develop a wide variety of specialist functions. You pick your single area of focus and make big investments there, but rely on generalists for the non-core functions. I also think that generalists are more comfortable in the dynamic environment a start-up provides.1

When your company gets to be mid-sized, things change. You’re not quite big enough to have full-on specialist functions throughout the organization, but you’re too big to have a team consisting largely of utility players. People who were once all-in-one coders, testers, and project managers start to move up the food chain and get more focused. And in certain areas of the business where the possibility of eking out some competitive advantage exists, specialists begin to accumulate. This is entirely natural, but it has consequences.

As groups of specialists—more accurately, specialist functions—emerge, there is a concomitant loss of context. Groups of people begin to form who just do data analysis, or just do functional testing, or just write RFPs. If you hire correctly, they begin to do these things really well. But because there’s specialization, and because there’s less organic messiness in the way decisions get made, and just because there are more people, there’s a natural predilection towards increasing the efficiency of the individual specialized function. That team of search engine optimization gods look at each other and say, earnestly, “Let’s do this right. And with the best of intentions, the organization as a whole starts to optimize for its constituent parts instead of the complete entity.

I want to reiterate that this is a natural outcome of the growth process in companies. I’ve seen it happen again and again. It’s nobody’s fault. It is, however, everyone’s responsibility to mitigate the problem. And I’m not a big believer in large, overarching organizational methodologies as a panacea. Be simple and tactical, and develop a distributed solution to the problem. So while you can expect some additional writing on the dangers of over-specialization in future posts, I want to offer here one simple, tactical suggestion that anyone, at any level of your organization, can use to defeat the Context-Loss-from-Specialization problem.

When you’re working with someone who has a very specific type of knowledge and experience, you have to provide them with an easy way to unpack their thinking from the (otherwise useful) blinders imposed by their specialization. The best way to do this is a conversation, and the name for the special kind of conversation I’ve found to be the most effective in this situation is a Television Pilot Conversation.

This is a reference to a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film, Pulp Fiction. Check it out:

The Television Pilot Conversation has two purposes, one relatively straightforward, and the other constituted by an ulterior motive. The straightforward purpose is to clearly and succinctly describe the context for the person lacking context. The more sneaky and sub-textual purpose is to remind that person that there are actual other humans out there operating with completely different sets of considerations, familiar with entire bodies of knowledge and experience, possessing skills equally as important or impressive as theirs, that should be taken into account. Now.

Television Pilot Conversations may take place on a one-to-one basis, or in large groups. The more deadpan the delivery (Samuel L. Jackson being the ideal to strive for here), the better. The more use of humor or irony, the better. The more familiar the person on the receiving end is with this particular scene in Pulp Fiction, the better. Here’s a convenient short URL for your distribution pleasure:  

The beauty of the Television Pilot Conversation is that anyone in the organization can deliver it to anyone else. It knows no bureaucratic strictures. It transcends seniority, hierarchy, and age. It requires no internal branding campaign, no corporate communications, no brown bag session, no long, boring meeting. It’s context in its most concentrated form, with a format guaranteed to generate results.


  1. Frankly, I just plain like being around people who mix their chocolate and peanut-butter. Amongst even the most highly specialized people, an intense second interest—cf. correlation between superb software engineers that are also talented musicians—is often a good indicator of robust capabilities elsewhere. []