We live in an increasingly complex world, in which cross-cultural awareness is not so much an added bonus as an essential requirement for business growth.
Whether a company plans on expanding internationally or not, it still participates in a global market and it is increasingly likely that most entrepreneurs will, at some point in their career, entertain professional relationship with international partners.
The key to a successful business interaction – be it the establishment of a new commercial partnership or the creation of a strategic campaign targeted at a foreign market – is showing respect and consideration for each other’s identity and culture. If you are planning on starting a business in Italy or working with Italian partners, it is worth brushing up on the local business etiquette. Here are a few useful, basic tips
The first approach: italy language
If you are approaching a new potential business partner, it is preferable to write in Italian. You are not expected to learn the language and you will probably conduct the rest of the negotiations in English, but it is considered polite to first contact your counterpart in their native language and then ask for their permission before switching to English. In the vast majority of cases, this is a mere formality and you will only need to invest in a native speaker to proof read or translate your first email, but it will help you make a good impression, by showing that you are willing to put in an extra effort to accommodate your potential partner’s needs.
Many a hopeful entrepreneur has fallen at this hurdle, not necessarily because the wrong way of greeting people has made their business plans fall through, but because they have inflicted long, awkward moments of embarrassment upon themselves and their Italian partners.
The reason many international professionals find it hard to negotiate the basic pleasantries of a first encounter in Italy, is because they are influenced by stereotypes that, while holding some degree of truth in informal interactions, are not applicable to business etiquette. Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: you will not be expected to hug and kiss strangers on the cheek at a business meeting. Such greetings are reserved for friends and close acquaintances and would be out of place at a first meeting.
A handshake will more than suffice, but you will have to shake hands individually with each person in the room, as group waves are not customary and may give the impression that you want to keep your distance.
Upon meeting someone for the first time, always introduce yourself by your full name.
Titles are normally used when introducing someone else to a third party and rarely for oneself, except in extremely formal situations. If someone has a specific title, such as Professor or Doctor, always use it when addressing them.
If you are not sure, the basic Signore or Signora(Mr and Ms) are accepted. Depending on the specific context, it may be slightly easier to get to first name terms with your partners in Italy than elsewhere, but that will not necessarily dispense you, when speaking Italian, from addressing your counterpart with the formal “you“(“lei“).
If one party is considerably older than the other, it is understood that they will set the level of formality within the interaction. It is therefore considered discourteous to address an older person informally, unless they do it first.
Socialising in Italy
When conducting negotiations, you may wish to entertain your guests after a meeting.
If you find yourself in Italy, the accepted way of socialising in a business environment is sharing a meal.
The host always pays: there is no exception to this rule.
If your guests offer to pay or split the bill, that is to be interpreted as a polite gesture, but you are not expected to take them up on the offer.
If, at the end of a pleasant dinner or in celebration of a closed deal, you wish to give your guests a gift, make sure it is tasteful and not too expensive – which would be considered tacky or pretentious.
Something representative of your company, your national identity and your culture is always appreciated, particularly if your partners have been providing hospitality for you and if your business relationship is relatively new. Branded gifts are best avoided, unless they have a specific meaning or significance.
Business etiquette in Italy, particularly as a result of globalisation, adheres for the most part to what we could call international western standards.
And yet a few traits of the local traditions and customs have found their way into the grammar of professional interaction, giving it a slight and unmistakeably Italian twist.
Being able to navigate your way around the finer points of the local business etiquette will help you establish better relationships with your Italian partners and ultimately contribute to the growth of your business.