So, you finally made your decision to start doing business in Italy. You deposited the required capital, went through the necessary bureaucratic moves, brushed up on local etiquette and even mastered the language to the best of your abilities. What now? Once your company is up and running, you will need to start working on your business relationships and on both your b2b and b2c communication. This is a crucial juncture: communicating your brand correctly is a key factor in its eventual success. Style and form do matter in Italy and picking the wrong way to deliver the right message simply won’t drive it home. How do you handle business communication in Italy? Bear in mind these simple rules, to start with.
Formalities are not mere formalities…
What foreign – and particularly American – professionals seem to find occasionally infuriating when working in Italy is our fondness for structure. There might be several reason for this being a pet peeve of many an international freelancer and entrepreneur doing business in Italy, but I suspect at least one of them is that it plays against the national stereotype. If you set about doing business in Italy expecting the average workplace to be an endless coffee break, with everyone patting everyone else’s on the back and being on first-name terms regardless of their position, you are in for a surprise – or possibly a disappointment. Italian institutions and companies tend to be ordered around a strict hierarchy, with managerial and decisional powers very much concentrated in the upper tiers. Rank and position matter and this transpires both in form and substance: it is not at all usual for employees to conduct themselves informally on in an over-friendly manner with their employers (or vice-versa) and the need for peer approval and validation is often very real. The ubiquitous diffusion of social media, particularly LinkedIn, has simplified certain forms of professional contact, but managerial decisions are still firmly in the hands of the same professional figures that held them when communication happened through fax messages.
… at least at the beginning
Does this mean that you will always have to address your business contacts formally, even when you are contacting them through a LinkedIn group? Not necessarily. While it is considered rude to start a cold-call or a conversation with someone new in an informal manner (which includes the use of the informal second person “tu” instead of the formal “lei”), it is generally acceptable to move on to first-name terms fairly quickly once a connection is established. If two parties are more or less the same age or share a similar hierarchical position, it is safe to suggest early in the conversation that formalities and titles be dropped. If, however, there is a significant age gap between two parties, it is unlikely that the younger person will ever be able to address the older one informally, unless they develop a close human connection. On the other hand, it is considered borderline acceptable or at least tolerable for the older person to address their younger counterpart informally, although it is increasingly being perceived as a patronising and entitled way of conducting business communication (and rightly so). Company cultures differ wildly with regard to the use of formalities and titles: be sure to research this aspect of your potential partners beforehand and, if you are unsure which route to take, stay with the formal approach until you are invited to abandon it. It is better to be perceived as overly polite than unnecessarily rude.
Business communication in Italy: what’s wrong with Power Point
Power Point is a company thing. We get it, by now: it is one of the many fads we have not been able to resist, which means you will be more or less free to carry yours around to the offices of potential clients and business partners and show it around to your heart’s content. If, however, your line of business does not involve sitting in someone else’s boardroom, with secretarial services, coffee and a projector, that wonderful presentation you spent hours piecing together is not going to be much use. Also, with precious few exceptions, sitting around a table watching a Power Point presentation is most definitely not where deals are clenched. Your eloquence and capacity to create meaningful human connections will be held into higher consideration than your Keynote skills. You are more likely to come to a commercial agreement over a one-to-one lunch with one or two management executives rather than a company meeting.
I am not talking about your dress sense – although that also matters enormously – but about your style of communication. No, you are not expected to try and mimic the local accent or what you may perceive as the Italian body language (please don’t), but there are aspects of human interaction that are valued different in Italy than elsewhere. Whereas in other countries it may considered proper to maintain a certain detachment when discussing business matters, in Italy enthusiasm and earnestness will take you a long way. This does not mean you have to raise your voice and be aggressive, overemotional or pushy when negotiating a deal, but rather that you should at least look like your heart, as well as your mind, is in it. It may also mean interacting in a closer personal space than you are used to, depending on where you are from: I recommend you try and get used to it, if you are hoping to conduct business in Italy: holding back might be perceived as being aloof or uninterested in what the other person has to contribute to the conversation.