Wherever business takes you, learning the culture, etiquette and protocol of the host country is a key step to success. Italy is no exception. Just as you would prepare your presentation before a big meeting, it’s important to prepare yourself by understanding the Italian customs, protocol and etiquette in a business setting.
Because Italy is a highly individualistic society, one that emphasizes family ties and individual responsibility, Italians generally prefer doing business with someone they know or have been introduced to. Use existing contacts and networks as an introduction before attempting to set up a meeting. Once you’ve been properly introduced or recommended, write a letter, in Italian, suggesting a meeting. This can later be followed up by email, a phone call or fax. Try to avoid scheduling meetings in August as this is a hectic time for businesses due to their employees taking time off for the summer holidays.
Now that you’ve scheduled a business meeting, dress to impress, just as the Italians do. Choose tasteful and stylish clothing. Men should choose expensive, sophisticated ties and well cut dark suits along with accessories such as tie clips, cuff links and fashionable watches. Women should choose simple, yet elegant outfits and add flair with accessories. It is considered fashionable, especially in summer to not wear stockings. Demureness and formality, often termed Bella Figura, are key elements in the Italian business culture. Maintaining an air of Bella Figura is believed to enhance both beauty and peace in the world. What you wear sends a clear message as to what type of person you are and will make a lasting impression. In addition, all business materials and presentations should be aesthetically pleasing to your Italian business associates.
Good manners and courtesy are essential in Italy; above all, considerateness is highly rated. Plan on shaking hands upon arriving and departing. As your relationship grows, embraces are not uncommon and signify a level of intimacy. Personal space is at a premium when people interact in Italy. Large hand gestures, freely flowing emotions and close personal contact are often present in Italian conversations. Avoid moving away or keeping your distance as this can be perceived as unfriendly. Italians are often guided by their emotions, establishing a business relationship based on trust is vital for a successful business negotiation.
Foreign business people are expected to be on time but the Italian executive might not be as prompt. Remember the rule above about courtesy being highly rated; show your consideration by arriving promptly and respecting their time. Unless invited to use first names, use the personal or professional title both in casual conversation and in written communication.
During the meeting, take your time and don’t instill a sense of urgency to the presentation. Urgency is frowned upon and seen as a weakness. Instead, make small talk and show an interest in anything Italian such as their food, art, fashion or sports. Maintain good eye contact throughout the meeting to show that you are sincere and honest. Italians have a great deal of respect for authority, power and age. Always give preferential treatment to the most senior person present. Don’t be surprised if your Italian counterparts interrupt each other or speak simultaneously, this is a part of the Italian communication style.
During negotiations, be prepared for last minute changes, demands and tests but remain firm. You probably won’t walk away with a decision being made on the spot. Instead understand that they will want to make a careful, calculated decision. To accommodate this, bring along plenty of information to handout so the Italians can later study and analyze your proposal. Initial meetings in Italy tend to be more for establishing a relationship and evaluating potential colleagues rather than for making decisions.
Decision making tends to be a long drawn out process taking several months or more. Be patient and avoid putting on pressure as this is an affront to the Italian protocol. High pressure sales tactics don’t work in the Italian business climate. Instead, decisions are often based on the impression you have made rather than on the actual business proposal. Do your part by being honest, respectable, well dressed and by following through on any verbal agreements or commitments you have made.
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