“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. That holds true for Milan, Venice, Florence and pretty much every other city in the world. Doing business abroad is an excellent opportunity for your firm to grow and for your personal network to expand. In order to make it a fulfilling and enriching experience as well, it is always worth investigating local traditions and etiquette: acting local will earn your partners’ trust and ensure that any transaction or agreement runs smoothly. Right? Almost. It is one thing to research and honour local customs, quite another to overdo it and go out of your way to impress your counterpart, inevitably falling back on old stereotypes that often clash with modern-day reality. If you are planning a business meeting in Italy, these simple tips will help you make a good impression, bring home the desired result and turn your business trip into a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Now, before we begin, mentally take every episode of the Sopranos you have ever watched and bin it: that is not how things are done in Italy.
Planning your meeting in Italy: Language barriers
When approaching an Italian firm for the first time, write in Italian. Investing in a native speaker to proofread or even translate your emails will not be interpreted as an assumption that the other party does not speak English, but as a courtesy and it will favourably impress the recipient. Once the exchange has moved onto the next level and you are planning a meeting, it is acceptable to enquire into the possibility of conducting the actual meeting in English. The responses you will get may vary, depending on your counterpart’s age and background. If you can’t agree on a common language, in which all parties are fluent, hiring an interpreter is definitely your best bet. It’s highly unlikely that you will ever come across a company in which no-one speaks any english whatsoever, but, if you are planning on doing business with Italian partners, it’s still worth mastering the basics of the language, in order to be able to exchange a few pleasantries and hold your own in informal conversation.
Whatever you might have heard to the contrary, no, it’s not ok to be late. On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to be 10 to 15 minutes early. Punctuality is expected and highly valued: it shows that you are committed, reliable and that you don’t take others and their time for granted. The idea that Italians are not concerned with punctuality is little more than a half-baked stereotype and it certainly does not apply to business meetings. In fact, were it not for this stereotype, there would be no reason to add this paragraph to an article about planning a meeting in Italy. Just assume we will appreciate punctuality and dislike tardiness like everyone else.
Always dress formally for a business meeting. Style and fashion matter a lot to the Italians and no, that is not a stereotype, that bit is actually true. This doesn’t mean that your outfit will be scrutinised, let alone discussed, but it will be noticed. No-one expects you to wear crazy-expensive designer clothes, but dressing too informally, particularly at a first meeting, is considered sloppy and generally looked down on. You might have a harder job establishing yourself as a trustworthy business partner, if you show up in your casual Friday apparel.
Although it is true that the concept of personal space in Italy and in most of Southern Europe is not the same as in Northern Europe or the US, you should not expect anything fancier than a handshake at the start and the end of a meeting. Hugs and kisses are reserved to personal relationships that have evolved past the level of mere business connections, into friendships or close acquaintances. You don’t need to embrace someone you have never met before and it would be awkward if you did. If a relationship strengthens over time and it reaches a certain level of closeness and intimacy, personal space is likely to shrink and greeting kisses might ensue. If that happens, it typically involves two “kisses”, which of course means that no actual kissing takes place. As in many other countries, the act of kissing each other’s cheeks has been sublimated into a light brushing of the face while shaking hands. Lastly, while we may be louder than you and use our hands in a more expressive manner, you are not expected to. Seriously, don’t. Above all, be sure to avoid the one gesture that every non-Italian in the universe associates with Italian hand gestures. You know the one. Don’t put the fingers of one hand together and then wave it up and down. That gesture has a meaning and it looks awkward if used out of context.
Entertaining your guests
Sharing a meal is an excellent way of strengthening a newly formed connection and building trust – which is essential to a healthy business relationship. If you wish to invite your partners or clients for a meal, rely on local experts to chose the right place. Bear in mind that the host is always expected to pay. If the party is relatively small, a guest may offer to get or split the bill, but the host should decline. Tips used to be less common in Italy than elsewhere, but they are now much more frequent. Though most restaurants charge for service, a 10% tip is generally a good idea. If you really want to blend in, order an amaro after your meal. Other spirits, like grappa, whisky or cognac are also ok, as is coffee, but not cappuccino (here’s why).
After having attended several meetings in several countries, you might come to the reasonable conclusion that the differences, if there are any to be found, are negligible. Globalization, movies and the omnipresent entrepreneurial narrative have dictated a universal standard for meeting rooms, so that – like airport lounges – they all look pretty much alike. Cross-cultural awareness is still essential, but what stands out in a business meeting is each party’s professionalism, their vision and their competence. If you want to make the most of your business trip to Italy, you could consider offering your clients or partners an incentive travel experience or just add an extra twist to your meeting by holding it in an unusual location, be it a villa in the countryside, a spa or a historic house. Showing knowledge and appreciation of Italy’s many treasures, as well as an interest in and respect for its culture, will contribute to the successful outcome of your meeting.