Ten tips for doing business in Italy

14 October 2020
door Regina Coeli

Italy has one of the largest economies in Europe, but not one of the most accessible. Sometimes, it can be challenging to get your foot in the door there, not only because of the numerous regulations but also because of culture.

So, what works when doing business with Italians? Regina Coeli’s Italian language trainers have put together these ten cultural tips to help you succeed in Italy.

1. Invest in the relationship

Most Italians don’t have a great deal of confidence in institutions and the government, although they do trust people they know well. That’s why Italians want to get to know you as a person first. Only after that are they willing to do business with you.

An informal meeting can say more about you than a well-prepared, formal meeting. Things like refusing an invitation to lunch under the motto: ‘we’re here to get work done’ aren’t especially helpful for that reason.

2. Choose the right conversation topics to build that relationship

You often hear that family and football are important topics of conversation for Italians, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for everyone. A good way to get to know each other is by talking about things you’ve encountered professionally or sharing a bit about your country and culture. You might even ask questions about cultural differences and talk openly about them. By talking about them, you immediately protect yourself in case you make a ‘cultural mistake’.

3. Italy is actually ‘many Italys’: all similar, but never the same

Italy is an incredibly diverse country, one whose customs and traditions vary greatly from region to region. The reasons for this are its history—rich, yet particularly fragmented—and its geography. Its mountainous areas encompass close to 76% of the nation’s total land area. They formed a natural barrier between Italy’s various populations throughout history and prevented any form of unity and cohesion. For this reason, it’s essential to gather information in advance about the region of Italy you want to go to and, if possible, talk to someone who has already been there.

4. Accept southern passion, but be careful!

Italians love to get together and talk, and they’re generally boisterous, passionate and lively. What gets said is often backed up by gestures, and some of those gestures have very precise meanings. Italians can show a temperamental side when they disagree with something in a business meeting or negotiation, but don’t worry—it’s really common for Italians to express themselves that way! Standing close together and touching each other lightly (COVID-19 permitting) is natural. But be careful: patting each other on the back or hugging one another is only something friends do!

5. A gift reinforces the relationship

Gift-giving signifies that an interpersonal relationship has blossomed alongside the working relationship. You can give gifts, but only if you know the recipient, if you go there regularly and if you hold each other in mutual esteem. If you don’t want to arrive empty-handed, you can bring something to eat or drink that's typical for your region: Dutch biscuits, especially stroopwafels, are very popular in Italy. As the relationship strengthens, you’ll start to discover what kinds of gifts could be suitable.

6. Use titles and, when in doubt, use the highest title

Initially, you should address your business partner by their title, such as ingegnere, dottore/dottoressa, and avvocato, followed by their surname. The first name is used when you mutually decide to be more informal with one another. One of the two parties, usually the higher status person, will say: ‘se per te va bene, possiamo darci del tu’ (if you like, we can be on familiar terms with one another). In that case, you can accept and switch to the use of first names, which means you can use the second person form of Italian verbs instead of the third!

7. Time consciousness

Here’s a well-known fact: Italians don’t allow themselves to be influenced too much by fixed times—they’re generally allergic to them. If you’re invited to dinner at eight o’clock, don’t come at eight sharp, and especially not before then! It’s best to come between 8:05 and 8:15; otherwise, your host will feel rushed. In the business world, you can gently enquire, and then listen closely to what’s said. When you hear ‘la riunione è alle cinque’, it means that the meeting really takes place at five o’clock. But ‘la riunione è verso le cinque’ means that the meeting can start anywhere between 4:30 and 5:30. Be sure to also bear in mind that Italians don’t consider a 15-minute delay as late.

8. A uniquely Italian monopoly

Italians love being negative about their country and always say that nothing works, politicians are dishonest and incompetent, nobody pays taxes and nobody works (but proceed with caution: the person saying these things thinks of himself as an honest, tax-paying, hard-working person, so you mustn’t confuse him with his compatriots...).

Don’t even think of saying negative things about Italy yourself—only Italians may; therefore, they have a monopoly on this! Hang in there and try instead to defend the country. Say something like: ‘Yes, but you have so much culture, so many beautiful things, such wonderful food...’. Doing this might help to steer the conversation in a different, more general direction.

9. How to dress?

A sense of beauty and aesthetics are ingrained in Italians. What is beautiful is also a joy to behold; it puts you in a good mood and makes you happy. Italians care about ‘la bella figura’ and immediately recognise the ‘other’ by their short socks or completely off colour scheme. We advise men to wear a suit in winter and a smart polo shirt with long trousers in summer to the first meeting. Not done: shorts, sandals or trainers. Always appropriate: long socks that match your trousers or shoes, but don’t be surprised if you see Italian men sans socks in summer. For ladies, a nice suit with a modern cut and a blouse is always appropriate in both winter and summer, with matching accessories to finish it all off. Not done: tank tops, shiny dresses or too much skin!

10. Last but not least: learn Italian

Although official meetings in Italy are held in English more often nowadays, that doesn’t mean Italians always enjoy speaking it. In fact, it’s quite the contrary! As soon as the meeting’s over, what could be better than chatting with your colleagues in your own language or dishing on the day together over lunch. This is done in Italian and is usually about general subjects. It’s all about those social chats: What do you do for a living? What are your interests? What do you do when you’re not working? Do you have a family? Do you travel a lot? Where do you go on holiday? It’s really worth learning to chat about these sorts of things in Italian. Even if you feel like you’re saying very little and can’t say it well, your business partner will greatly appreciate the effort because he knows very well how difficult it is to learn a foreign language. He’ll immediately tell his family and friends very proudly: ‘Do you know that my Dutch business partner even speaks a bit of Italian? Awesome! That makes it easier for us.’

Many people who do business with Italy come to Regina Coeli to learn at least the basics of the language. If you would like to know what we can do for you, take a look at the information about our Italian training courses and contact us to plan a consultation.

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