Italy now has the world’s eighth largest economy and it’s a fantastic country to do business in. While their way of doing business is pretty laid-back, there are certain social rules and forms of etiquette which Italians will expect potential business partners to follow.
Just as a heads up, you can’t treat all regions of Italy in the same way. Each region tends to think of itself almost as a nation in its own right, with its own culture, geography and economy. Brush up on the region you’re visiting before you go, to find out more about their individual status and what the cultural nuances might be.
There are some things which remain true right across the country, however. The first is addressing people in the correct way. There are two versions of the word ‘you’ in Italian – use the more formal ‘Lei’, as opposed to the informal ‘Tu’, which is reserved for close friends and family. You should also address them as Signor and Signora until invited to use their given name.
Italians usually expect you to set up a business meeting two weeks in advance, and in writing – preferably in Italian if you speak the language yourself or can find a trusted translator. Before the meeting you should print any materials in both Italian and English, to avoid anything getting lost in translation.
Handshakes are the most common greeting, but some may choose to kiss both cheeks. Italians can be pretty laid-back about meetings and negotiations. Punctuality isn’t taken too seriously, so you can be left waiting for a couple of hours or more, and many people will answer their phones during talks if the incoming call is important.
Meetings are generally considered a place to share ideas, and you may not reach the negotiation or decision stages until you’ve held several. Don’t rush things. Meetings over lunches and dinners can last for a couple of hours, and there will be a lot of small talk over business talk.
Certain topics are off the table if they’re sensitive subjects. Italians love a good sense of humour and will appreciate jokes, but avoid talking about the Church, the mafia, corruption or family. Opt instead for praising the culture or discussing hobbies.
As long as you respect your host and adopt their attitude to doing business, you have every chance of finding business success in Italy.
Don’t treat all regions in the same way
Address people formally, to begin with
Set up meetings well in advance
Meetings are often laid-back and informal
Avoid discussing culturally sensitive topics