Cultural Differences – Italy

The exchange of mutual favors combined with long-term loyalties is the basis of every cooperation. Business relationships in Italy are therefore considered to be stable and successful only when the personal relationship between the partners is right and they all fit into a personal relationship network. The most important basis is good communication, because talking is the measure of all things for Italians. In the process, personal topics are always touched upon before talking about the actual reason for the business meeting. Eating and drinking together underlines the good conversation.

Similar sense of time

In business life punctuality is interpreted positively. However, in Italy the tolerance threshold is higher, i.e. you can come to a meeting 20 to 30 minutes late without being unpunctual. A telephone call notifying your business partners of the delay, however, is much appreciated as a sign of reliability.

Flexibility and talent for improvisation

Anyone who has already driven a car in Rome or Naples has already noticed a great deal of the particular flexibility that Italians enjoy, especially in unforeseen situations. This is due in no small part to Italians’ pronounced ability to communicate – verbal or non-verbal, which allows them to quickly and creatively solve existing problems. Try to practice your improvisation skills with your Italian business partners. Numerous successful collaborations show that a mix of perhaps your brand of precision and Italian flexibility at the project level can lead to good joint results.

By the way, with regard to Italian communication, it is hardly surprising that in the Italian business culture verbal agreements are much more important than written contracts. All in all, printed material is designed with a great deal of flexibility and generosity.

A perrenial question: where are decisions made?

In many Italian companies the hierarchy levels are clearly delinieated. If new posts are filled at a higher level, the specialized knowledge and experience of the candidate is not always the most important factor to be considered. Very often, personality, family background, and belonging to a network of relationships are more likely to result in a successful hire.

Similarly, at the highest levels of management, it is not always clear who is responsible for particular decisions. Here it is important to know who enjoys the greatest trust among the management. As you may imagine, a decision is not automatically made by the management of the relevant department, but by the one that can best make the decision well and carry it through to completion. For successful business negotiations in Italy, at least try to understand links and personal connections in the company.

Project work is done in Italian companies mainly through verbal exchange. Overall, the team leader has an authoritarian style, but this is livened up by a familiar, personal approach to the staff as well as the promotion and maintenance of a good relationship with them. Rules or standards take a subordinate role. Only when the management achieves a certain stage in the process and commitment to a project with its employees are tasks are dealt with immediately. Manners within the company are rather informal.

Italian meeting culture

The seemingly innate desire to talk is typical of Italian business meetings. Italians embrace a fairly lively communication style. While you may communicate more directly and objectively, they display more enthusiastic gestures, facial expressions and emotions.

Their expressive style, which always includes a little self-staging, includes simultaneous, loud speaking, which makes it significantly more difficult for others to keep a grasp on the conversation. If you are more accustomed to a more restrained body language paired with comparatively little eye contact, it will give your speech and manner of communication a slightly different impression from an Italians’ point of view. If you have a more disciplined manner of speech free of interruptions from either side, the Italians may mistake your efforts at politeness for disinterest. They measure interest, for example, by spontaneous questions.

In the absence of such interjections, their own flow of speech will not be easily interrupted, so you may feel left by the wayside if you do not assert yourself.

Creativity defines the meeting

Here, creativity and the power of ideas dominate meeting agendas, which can quickly expand a topic. Within a few minutes, the most diverse strategies for solving a problem arise, and are just as quickly discarded. It is always back to what has been said or anticipated in the first place. Many topics are simply discussed simultaneously. It is also customary to spontaneously get more people into the meeting, or have two meetings arranged one after the other merge together to form a major event. Individuals leave the room or, in small groups, several small discussion groups are formed. The speakers show off their eloquence and there is often a tendency for unnerving hair splitting.

Everyone is entitled to interfere and contribute his or her opinion. It is therefore often advisable to make some new allies in advance for new ideas that constructively support the proposal in the meeting.

Closeness and chaos

Also noteworthy is also the lower relative social distance of the Italians. They like to stand, sit or discuss matters face to face, quite literally. For others who feel a more comfortable with an arm’s length of personal space, close sitting together often feels strange, combined with a loud discussion.

Successful business partners very quickly perceive the dynamics of Italian meetings as uncontrolled chaos. They therefore learn to counter with formal presentations in order to gain structure and order. Any attempt to intervene, however, may backfire. So throw yourself into the Italian fiesta!

Your style of doing business, coupled with Italian flexibility in all situations, the adaptability and the creative implementation of a project make a successful, synergy-rich cooperation possible. Once this has been recognized by both sides, you and your Italian business partners will love and appreciate each other!

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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