It is difficult and dangerous to generalise too much about nationalities, after all, nationalities are composed of many different individuals. Saying that, there are some guidelines that can help when doing business in Italy. The more you understand how many Italians think (and there are of course many, many exceptions) the better your business negotiations will go.
In Italy, the majority of international businesses are located in the north and tend to be more attuned to the business culture in the UK and the USA. One simple example is in the response time to emails. In business you are used to instant replies, at most a day’s wait. This may well happen if you are dealing with an ‘internationally savvy’ Italian company. But many businesses may wait several days to reply, prefer to call you instead or even not reply at all. If you do receive an email it may be very formally worded, more like a business letter. Bizarrely, many companies have a tremendous love of faxes and you will often be asked if you can fax a document rather than email it!
The Italian tendency towards caution can result in lots of photocopies and faxes of various official documents. Stamping things with various marks and numbers is also popular. Everyone is terrified of making a mistake with documentation (which may result in a fine from the authorities), so the byword is ‘if in doubt ask for copies of everything’. The Italian reputation for burdensome bureaucracy is well deserved.
Up Close and Personal
Italians generally prefer to do business with people they know directly, or who are acquaintances of people they know. It helps if you can use your networking skills to find some common ground. Get your contact to fix up the meeting and be present at least for the introductions. Always deal in person if at all possible.
Remember the old saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover?’ Well, in Italy the reverse is true. You are judged very much on how you look and how you are dressed. Make it conservative, low key, immaculate and expensive. An Italian can evaluate a designer label from fifty paces, it’s in the blood!
You may have heard of the expression ‘Una bella figura’ or ‘una brutta figura.’ This is fundamental to the Italian way of doing business. You can translate it as ‘a good (or bad) impression’, although there is more to it than that. An Italian will slit his wrists rather than cut a ‘brutta figura’ with a new acquaintance. However, their idea of a ‘brutta figura’ may not be the same as yours. Arriving late, for example, is quite normal and nothing to be embarrassed about. For your Italian host. You should, of course, be on time.
The Italian business world is based on politeness and formality. Expect to shake hands, use titles (and in Italy if you have been to university or have some kind of professional expertise, you have a title like ‘dottore’ or ‘ingegnere’) and not to be rushed. Whilst formality and good manners are core aspects an Italian business meeting, you may be surprised by all the wild gesturing, talking across each other and even raised voices. This is quite normal. Expressing yourself, even when talking across someone, is considered a sign of a strong personality, someone confident. As your business contact gets to know you better he will become more demonstrative and tactile. All quite normal too!
Don’t be surprised if it takes some time to get to the subject you came to discuss. It may not even come up until you have been treated to a good lunch and are on the post prandial espresso! Be prepared not to reach a conclusion or get a decision straight away. Patience and cultivating a good personal relationship is key to doing business in Italy.