Dos and Don’ts

 

How you carry yourself, known locally as your bella figura, is the key to success in Italy. The first thing Italians will carefully scrutinise is how you look, right down to your unpolished shoes. Then they’ll assess the rest of your bella figura, checking out your levels of confidence, style, and charm — and your knowledge of Italy and its culture. With that in mind, take extra care with your appearance and presentation.

It’s a good idea to display pride in your international background while at the same time showing your appreciation for the Italian way of life. Become knowledgeable about the Italian region where you’ve come to do business, especially its cuisine, wines, and culture. Know the latest political developments — but don’t get into political arguments. Above all, learn a bit of the language. Italians won’t expect you to be fluent, but they’ll love it if you’re able to exchange a few pleasantries. Besides, Italian is an alluring tongue.

Italians have impeccable manners and you should emulate them at all times. To act otherwise will be considered disrespectful, and may cost you your colleagues’ trust. In a business setting, find out who the most senior person is and address him or her first and politely. Don’t get too personal, but do show an interest in your associates’ lives.

 

Respect is a key word in Italy and infers knowing your place and honouring authority. Italy is a very hierarchical and status-conscious society. Top executives don’t usually mingle with their subordinates, and very rarely will they hand out compliments for good work done. Relationships must be forged with your Italian counterparts, never with those above or below you in business status. So always respect business titles — including academic and professional titles — and use them when appropriate. Never slip into first names unless specifically invited to do so.

Unless you’re familiar with Italian hand gestures, the golden rule is to avoid them. Using the wrong gesture may inadvertently work against you, as you may be communicating something you didn’t intend. On the other hand, it certainly helps to know what the most frequently used hand gestures mean. This will give you the advantage of being able to “read” Italians more accurately.

Never turn up unexpectedly at a business office — or someone’s home for that matter. It’s best to be introduced to Italian businesspeople by someone they already respect and trust. If you must introduce yourself, write a formal letter of introduction. Expect the initial meeting to be scheduled weeks in advance, and be prepared for changes in the meeting date. Always call or e-mail a day or two ahead of the meeting to reconfirm.

 

Kissing a woman on both cheeks and shaking a man’s hand are customary when meeting in any social setting. Handshakes when greeting or departing are the norm in business. Some Italian businessmen might also grab your arm with the handshake.

Italy is one of the few places where calling cards still exist and they’re frequently used in social settings. Personal calling cards list only a person’s name, address, and telephone number. Do not get these cards muddled up with business cards, which include business titles and other work details. Some may include the Italian translation on the reverse side.

When you receive a business card, be sure to read it. Don’t just tuck it away. You’re expected to view everything as a work of art, and that includes business cards. More practically, though, there’s a lot to learn from business cards, including appropriate titles, which you should use whenever possible.

 

Business lunches are not about business — they’re about developing personal relationships. Do not bring up business. Enjoy the food and flaunt your cultural knowledge. And, while it’s fine to drink wine at lunch, never get drunk. Whether the event is social or business related, Italians limit their drinking to two or three glasses.

In business matters, don’t expect results overnight. Italians won’t be pressured into anything. Expect negotiations to take time, because even when you think you’ve reached an agreement, Italians will revisit it several times before it becomes final. Remember, you’re building a relationship, not just one deal, so go slow and don’t put pressure on your Italian business associates.