Before diving into the do’s and don’ts it is necessary to say a few words about the business mentality that is present in Italy. Like many other societies it is important to build close relationships with clients: half the battle is knowing the right person. It goes without saying that your Italian counterparts should like and trust you. This goes past the typical American idea of “getting down to business” in which there is talk about money (which we’ll get into later). Courtesy is a much appreciated quality.
With respect to many western countries, and even the rest of the world, Italy has a lot of public and religious holidays. It’s best to be mindful of them, so try not to organise any meetings in August (the entire month!), on Catholic festivities or national days off.
Punctuality—No Big Deal
Punctuality is not a priority for Italians. When you start working with an Italian partner or have a meeting, you can expect a bit of a delay; this is not the case in Japan and Germany. It’s important not to take this as a sign of disrespect. Be patient. Grab a coffee. Flexibility is important, even when considering deadlines, so if a deadline must absolutely be respected then it must be made clear.
Priorities are shifted as new demands arise and they are not bothered by interruptions. Some call this multitasking, others call it disorganization. Consequently, if your Italian colleague has multiple projects, you may experience a delay and it’s best not to stress yourself too much about it.
Dress to Impress
Clothing plays an important role in Italian culture. Italy is a major center of fashion design and production. Even if the dress code is “casual,” keep in mind that casual clothes are also stylish. For example: Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Marni, Max Mara, Missoni, and Prada are just a few of Italy’s luxury brands. In fact, one could go so far as to say that you should wear Italian-made clothes given their overall cachet on the world stage.
For business meetings, formal attire is generally expected. For the most part, business women tend to wear darker colors that are elegant and modest pantsuits or skirt suits, simple jewellery and makeup. A conservative style is always accepted, but outside of large companies (or financial companies of any size), informal clothes are also acceptable.
Greetings and Conversation
Learning some basic Italian phrases makes it easier to get around the city and speak to the locals, many of whom, in the north at least, will also speak English. However, Italians love it when you try to speak some Italian with them regardless of your skill level with the language.
When introducing yourself, or being introduced by someone else, shake hands with each individual person—don’t wave. Generally, you’ll be introduced to older people and women first, so when introducing yourself it’s best to follow this same norm. It should also be mentioned that ciao (which functions sort of like “hey” and “bye’) is not used for first or unfamiliar meetings: the proper formal acknowledgement is piacere which is the equivalent of “pleased to meet you.”
When addressing a senior or executive you are expected to say Signore (Mr.) or Signora (Ms./Mrs.) along with their surname, unless they invite you to use their first names. As a side note, you are not expected to make so many hand gestures as your Italian counterparts may be prone to.
If you are at a loss for something to speak about in terms of small talk, Italian culture is a popular theme. Italians are generally open, curious and tolerant of other cultures. However, while lateness and mistakes are tolerable, arrogance and rudeness are big don’ts.
Business Meetings and Meals
Don’t be surprised if, during Italian business meetings, you colleagues express open disagreement and constructive conflict. This is quite common. People will speak simultaneously and interrupt each other: it’s just part of the communicative style.
If the meeting is an initial one, don’t expect to make too many business decisions. First meetings are often informal opportunities with the intention of evaluating colleagues and establishing new relationships. Using pressure to try to change this will be counterproductive and definitely unwelcome.
Exchanging business cards is still a common practice. You should have yours translated into Italian. Make sure that it includes any advanced educational degrees and your full title on both sides.
As far as gifts are concerned: do not give a business gift until you first receive one. When giving a gift in this situation gifts that include a company logo should be avoided.
Hospitality is important in business culture (as well as in Italy’s general culture), and usually involves restaurants. If you refuse an invitation it will likely be taken as an insult. Additionally, meals will certainly not be rushed; in some cases you can expect up to two or three hours. While a tip is not expected or required in any part of Italy, it is always nice to do. A simple 10% tip will go a long way.
When to Talk About Money
Even if you aren’t going to close a deal, it is still important to show appreciation in order to leave a good impression which may come in handy in the future.Those are the big things to watch out for when meeting new clients or just in general for doing business in Italy. Time to brush up on those language skills.
Check also our video below, about what to consider when starting a business in Italy.