When doing business abroad, cross-cultural awareness is instrumental in nurturing healthy professional relationships. Acquainting yourself with what business culture in Italy looks like, for instance, is the best way of preparing to do business or market a product in this Country. It’s not just about business etiquette, but about having an overall grasp of how professional environments work. Depending on where you come from, simple things like using a mobile phone or ordering a meal might be done differently in Italy. Here are a few examples.
Smoking is banned from all public indoor spaces in Italy and the ban is strictly enforced. For this reason, most offices and corporate events planners will schedule cigarette breaks and provide specific areas for it. While smoking should not be encouraged, these breaks undeniably constitute bonding moments for those who engage in them. If you are not a smoker and find yourself in a smoking environment, however, you can always socialise over coffee or lunch (and set a healthy example for your colleagues).
Italians tend to be less strict than other nationals about using mobile phones in public. While it is universally considered rude to not switch your phone to silent or to fiddle constantly with it while attending a conference or a meeting, it is not an absolute taboo to use a phone at all in such circumstances. Texting is broadly tolerated and a quick check at your Facebook app, while unadvisable, is not a mortal sin. It is also not entirely unusual for calls to be taken, provided that they are important and urgent and that the person taking them has told the room in advance that they were expecting one.
Sense of humour
Italians are pretty thick-skinned when it comes to humour. Subjects such as race, gender and religion are not as sensitive in Italy as they are elsewhere and, if your business environment is relaxed enough to allow for jokes and banter at all, you will find that the bar of what is considered acceptable is significantly higher than, say, in the USA. This is not, however, an excuse to express racist or sexist opinions, which will most certainly not be welcome. Most Italians will also take constructive or humorous criticism well and not be offended by having their quirks pointed out to them. Just keep it light-hearted, not too personal and generally steer clear of politics.
Business culture in Italy
Building close, steady and balanced relationships is the key to doing business in Italy. We just said that you shouldn’t get too personal, but being too distant and formal is also unadvisable: if you appear to be aloof and unapproachable, you will be perceived as untrustworthy. It is essential to strike the perfect balance between these two extremes. Invite confidence, but don’t impose it upon others, share something of your story and personal experience, but stop before you give too much information and don’t interrogate others on personal details that they are not disclosing. Trust is built slowly and progressively and highly valued as a business tool. Being introduced by the right person as trustworthy and reliable may be worth more than having a flawless business plan.
Negotiate, don’t haggle
When conducting negotiations in Italy, it is common to express disagreement and criticism in a frank, often rather passionate way. It is also acceptable for each party to aim for slightly higher targets than they are actually hoping to achieve. Haggling, however, is most definitely not a part of the shared business culture in Italy. If your initial demands are outrageously unrealistic, your counterpart is likely to leave the table immediately, rather than take the challenge and make you an equally ludicrous offer in the opposite direction. Making reasonable demands and not dragging the negotiation for longer than it needs to take is a sign that you respect your counterpart and value their time as much as yours.
Power and hierarchy
Most companies in Italy are strictly hierarchical in their organisation and, if you are negotiating with a top manager, know they will expect to talk someone with a similar position. Italians also set enormous store by age, which might occasionally create clashes with international companies. Because respect for old (or even just old-er) age is deeply ingrained into Italian mentality, a CEO or a CFO in their fifties will find it extremely difficult to negotiate on the same level with someone in their twenties or thirties, regardless or role.