Origin of the phrase.
This phrase derives from a medieval Latin phrase which is attributed to St Ambrose. The original Latin is, ‘si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more’ which means, ‘if you are in Rome, then live in the Roman manner’.
St Ambrose was the bishop of Milan and he lived in the fourth century AD. He wrote this proverb in 387 AD.
The phrase ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ means that ‘when you are living in, or visiting, a community of people, you should follow the laws and customs of that community’.
Literally, the proverb means that when you are in Rome, you should act like the Romans. However, in broader sense, it signifies that ‘whatever country we are in, we should act like the locals’.
Thus, though in the original phrase, St Ambrose referred specifically to Rome, the proverb is most usually used in a more general sense. It refers to the fact that, ‘no matter where in the world we are, we should respect local laws and customs’. In fact, St Ambrose added on a little extra to his proverb, noting that ‘and when I am elsewhere, I act according to other customs’.
However, the proverb also has a more general moral sense. It is polite and respectful to observe local customs and do as locals do. It demonstrates a ‘willingness to learn about others’ way of life and to see things from their point of view, and a respect for that viewpoint too‘.
Thus, in essence, the proverb ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ is all about:
- Respecting other people’s ways of life.
- Learning about other cultures.
- Not imposing one’s own beliefs and habits on others.
- Respecting local laws.
- Integrating oneself into another society.
The proverb has yet another meaning. It also means that ‘a novice or beginner should learn and follow the person who has expertise in that particular field’.
It is fascinating that Ancient Rome has been a vehicle for metaphor in this proverb. This suggests the enduring power of Roman civilization in human culture today.
‘Do as the Romans do’ can mean following local laws, integrating with local culture, or learning the language. It is essential to follow local laws when abroad.
Following the local culture when abroad is a mark of respect and has many benefits. Integrating with other cultures expands our minds. Integrating with locals is a great way to make friends. It is a good way to learn about local life. It is polite to respect other cultures.
The significance of the idea ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ is discussed below:
1. Relativism: This proverb reminds us that many of our beliefs are not as absolute as we may previously have thought them to be. One example is the idea that our culture knows the ‘right’ way to cook food or to greet acquaintances. Other cultures have different cooking styles, and different ways of greeting people (from handshakes to bows). Living by the idea of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ enables us to acknowledge that we should not think that we are ‘right’ and other cultures are wrong about these things.
2. Learning: When we promise ourselves that we will act as the locals do when we visit other communities, we open ourselves up to a great learning experience. Acting as other people act helps us to empathize with them and to understand their way of viewing the world. This is a great way to attain wise new ideas, to learn helpful habits, and to get a different perspective on life.
3. Making friends: One of the best ways to make friends when visiting other nations is to demonstrate a willingness to integrate with the local culture. Adhering to the principle of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ means that, rather than isolating ourselves from locals we mix with them and show that we are not so different from them after all – a great way to strike up conversations and make great friendships abroad.
4. Adhering to the law: Of course, it is always important to stay within the law whenever we visit a different country. This is one of the ways in which the idea behind the proverb is pragmatically important.
5. Expanding our horizons: When we decide to live as locals do, we truly expand our horizons. From trying new foods to experiencing new ways of dancing, and from learning new languages to adopting different styles of dress, this idea of acting in the way that locals do encourages us to try all kinds of new things.
6. Politeness: It is generally very polite to take part in other people’s customs. Whether than means joining in with a family meal or participating in a local dance or other activity. Living as locals do is a polite way of respecting their culture and showing that you value it, and do not think that your culture is better than theirs.
7. Practical: When visiting a different country or region of the world, it is often very practical to act in the same way as locals do. In some very hot countries, for instance, locals sleep during the middle of the day to avoid getting caught in the sun. Following the locals’ lead here is a very practical way of helping your body to adapt to the place you are visiting in the best possible way. There are numerous other example of ways in which adhering to the principle of this proverb can help you practically. Avoiding the parts of town that locals say are not so good to visit, eating at the restaurants favored by locals, and heading down to locals’ favorite haunts will all help you to make the most of your stay!
Whether you are just on a short trip to another country, or whether you plan to emigrate to a far off land, the proverb ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ will be very helpful for you. This proverb has many uses: some that are pragmatic and some that are more about personal growth.
Pragmatically, it is a very good idea to follow the locals’ lead when it comes to living in a different land. After all, they have lived there longer than you and can let you in on all of those all important local secrets.
In terms of personal growth, setting your differences aside and living in the way that locals do will enable you to gain a new perspective on the world. This maxim encourages us to expand our horizons by trying out new things, and also to embrace the fact that there are many different ways of understanding life – and of living it too!