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Doing business in Italy: The essential etiquette you need to know

Doing business in Italy: The essential etiquette you need to know
Do you know how Italy does business? Photo by Edmond Dantès/Pexels
Whether you’re working in Italy as an employee, operating as a self-employed freelancer or thinking about starting a company, there are business norms to observe if you want to thrive and build connections. We break down the dos and don’ts of conducting business in Italy.

Succeeding at work takes more than being good at what you do. It also takes an awareness of the culture you work in and an appreciation of the customs of that country. Diving into doing business in Italy with the mindset of your home country – or where you have worked before – isn’t likely to get you far.

READ ALSO: ‘If you move to Italy, brace yourself for things not going the way you want’

“It’s important to build trust. That’s far more important than having the best solutions and ideas. Of course, good ideas and business acumen are important, but in Italy, it comes down to one question: can I trust you?” says Nicolò Bolla, an Italian tax and finance expert who works with English-speaking professionals.

Here’s his expert advice on everything from how to dress to what to chat about over a business lunch.

The Italian business mentality

Developing a rapport is the foundation to succeeding in business in Italy. It’s expected that you’ll be able to make good business decisions and be full of initiative, but the sales pitch isn’t enough, Bolla says.

Perhaps your products or services are excellent, but he advises that building business relationships in Italy is much more about the person.

It sounds obvious that your colleagues, present and potential, should like you if they want to do business with you. But in Italy, this surpasses everything, including money, according to Bolla. Instead, courtesy is the priority and whether they work with you depends on whether you’re someone they want to interact with on a personal level too.

READ ALSO: How networking can help international women in Italy

“Be prepared for invitations to aperitivo or a dinner. This is when they’re checking to see how you would fit with them, in a relaxed context. They’re working out whether they can trust you and if you refuse these invitations, it can be seen as an insult,” he says.

It’s also worth knowing that these business meetings over food or a spritz can drag on for hours. So don’t expect to schedule in other meetings and to rush through lots of potential clients. Put the work in and give them your time, and you just might start building that professional relationship that gives you an ‘in’ to their company, he advises.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Small talk might include the topic of family and if you like football, that’s usually an animated talking point and a way to connect. Bolla advises discussing where you’re from and where you’ve been in Italy. In that way, chatting naturally follows and gives the opportunity for shared experiences over places you’ve both been to.

It’s worth bearing in mind that many firms in Italy are family-run: even if a company has 300 employees, there is a family behind it and consequently there is less formality than with the big corporations, Bolla points out.

READ ALSO: Almost half of jobs in Italy are found through friends and family

As different cultures meet, it might be tempting to contrast Italian habits with how business is done where you’re from. It might be surprising or frustrating to keep patient through a slower business process in Italy. But don’t be tempted to compare too much.

“If you offer a solution, saying ‘that’s how it’s done in Germany’, for example, which is much better than how it’s done in Italy, you’re more likely to crush any budding bond than to be constructive,” warns Bolla.

You can certainly offer up ideas and draw on your experience, but any pejorative comparisons are best avoided.

Italian punctuality – is that an oxymoron?

The slow dinners might give you the impression that Italians are more lax than other countries when it comes to being on time. However, Bolla recommends that you are punctual for all meetings and business dealings, but that you do need to be flexible. The notorious Italian bureaucracy – and how long-winded it can be – spills over into business sectors too.

READ ALSO: 19 bits of Italian bureaucracy you can do online

“Be prepared for delays, to wait and for deadlines to change. This is a good lesson in not letting work stress you out and learning to keep calm,” he says.

The pandemic has also created a shift in business, meaning flexibility is more valued and required than ever, he added.

Observe Italian dress codes

Appearances are a big part of Italian culture. To make a good impression, you do need to dress smartly as you would in many other countries, but it’s not necessary to turn up dripping in Dolce & Gabbana.

Photo by August de Richelieu/Pexels

“Dress formally for certain sectors, such as in finance, for instance. You’ll need to suit up and darker colours are more acceptable in these areas of business. But in other sectors, such as IT, digital and media, you don’t need to wear a shirt and tie. Formal casual is acceptable in these cases,” says Bolla.

Greetings etiquette and the Italian language you need to know

Although it’s accepted that you should learn Italian if you live in Italy, not having a high command of the language isn’t actually a barrier to business, according to career expert Bolla.

“Italians love it when you try to speak their language, even if you only say some basic phrases. It’s true that some companies won’t have any English language skills and in those cases, you’d need to get your Italian up to scratch,” he says.

However, some of his clients don’t speak a word of Italian. “A lot of the English-speaking professionals living in Italy don’t speak Italian as they have found English-speaking customers. Some are in Italy – pasta manufacturing firm Barilla, for instance, has an English-speaking office.

“Or they work with companies overseas and so for many professionals, English is the language mainly needed, not Italian,” he says.

READ ALSO: Job-hunting in Italy: The Italian words and phrases you need to know

Photo by ANNA MONACO / AFP

When you’re introduced to new colleagues, the most accepted gesture is a handshake, or at least it was in pre-pandemic Italy. Now a bump on the elbow is acceptable, even a nod of the head – but never give a wave, he advises.

If you are addressing a senior person or executive, use their proper title, either Signore (Mr) or Signora (Mrs or Ms) with their surname. That is unless they say, “Just call me Giò,” giving you permission to use their first name.

Hand gestures are a tricky area when it comes to business. Italians are known for their hand waving and it goes beyond gesticulating, sometimes carrying a specific meaning. It can be confusing if you aren’t aware that waving your hand in front of your forehead signifies ‘crazy’ or that placing your index finger and thumb together while you draw an invisible line horizontally means ‘perfect’.

If in doubt, don’t do it, advises Bolla. “Don’t mimic them or look like you’re conducting an orchestra while you speak if it doesn’t come naturally to you,” he says.

Face time is king

Italy’s business is still mainly conducted face-to-face. Contacting someone online either via email or social media is much more likely to fall flat.

“Talking to someone in real life is more successful than doing business online in Italy. There is a much more social and ethical base to business done here and so it’s hard to achieve that digitally,” says Bolla.

READ ALSO: ‘Smart working’? Here’s what you need to know about going self-employed in Italy

That means you need to dress the part and get out there in the real world, putting yourself in front of the right people and introducing yourself. The same can be said for job hunting, where walking around with hard copies of your CV and having a chat is a more probable route to finding employment than if you spent hours crafting an excellently written email.

Of course, there are always exceptions and some sectors are more responsive to the digital approach, especially media firms in the bigger cities.

Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

It’s not all about the money

This can be a taboo subject and is always left to the last item on the agenda, according to Bolla. The focus is on everything else, the relationship and the plans, with money almost the footnote, like “by the way, this is what you’ll get”.

This can be a vastly different experience for foreign nationals living in Italy compared to how business is done in their home country.

“Especially if the money discussed is a large sum, it’s better to leave the issue until last. They want to get to know you first rather than stating the price up front,” Bolla says.

READ ALSO: The best companies to work for in Italy, according to Italians

It doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate, however. When the time is right, you can drive a bargain and if you’re an employee, it’s not unheard of to say what another employer is offering you in order to get a raise. It can even sometimes be the only way to boost your paycheck, he adds.

Above all, Bolla advises to be modest as, despite what you might think in the home of Lamborghini and Ferrari, a flashy attitude won’t get you far in Italy.

The bureaucracy of business

If you’re not already living in Italy but are considering moving for work, there is plenty to consider. Will you work for a company or go self-employed, or even open a company? How much tax and social security contributions will you have to pay and what does that mean for your take-home income?

Where will you live, and if you want to work remotely, does the area have decent internet connection? It’s all very well planning to earn a living from your laptop while some of the world’s most outstanding beauty is on your doorstep, but if there’s slow wifi, that puts paid to any employer relying on you for meeting deadlines.

READ ALSO: ‘The lessons we’ve learned from 10 years running a business in rural Italy’

“It’s important to put a plan together and make a strategy if you’re considering moving to Italy for work. The paperwork can be lengthy and complex,” says Bolla.

Before you make any plans, you’ll need to check which visa is right for you so that you can legally live and work in Italy.

For more living in Italy information, check The Local’s guides here.


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