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The Italian expression “la bella figura” translates to “cut a good figure” and refers to a person’s personal presence, fashionable clothes, a well-groomed appearance, good manners, and overall positive self-expression.
The desire to cut a good figure in Italy is not only reserved for rich, successful and famous personalities. Regardless of social class, age, income and occupational position, every Italian tries to make the most of himself. The Bella-figura principle is a social leveler in a certain sense because even the poorest person may dress in a tasteful way, such that he does not necessarily consider himself as belonging to a disadvantaged class. The Italian domestic worker is able to dress like her fine “signora” without seeming artificial. All Italian children are dressed in their mostly dark blue school uniform with bright white shirt and socks every day.
Good appearance and cleanliness
Similarly, la bella figura refers to objects, be they expensive design pieces or simple objects of daily life. Things, including their packaging and presentation, must look good to Italians, whether they are cheap or of high quality. It will be noticed if the look of a good product does not live up to expectations. Likewise, cleanliness is an aspect of the bella figura. Italians spend the most on detergents worldwide!
The negative opposite of the bella figura is the “brutta figura”. An “ugly figure” describes someone who does not pay attention to his appearance or who behaves rudely. Many Italians are ashamed when politicians damage the public prestige of Italy by their questionable behavior or even if the Italian national football team has played badly. Public figures are scrutinized in the Italian media, whether they are cutting a bella or gross figura.
The principle of the bella figura, however, on closer examination goes much deeper than one would suspect at first glance. You might even call it the Italian version of Asian “saving face”. So it is important for the individual not only to cut a good figure himself anytime and anywhere; he is also interested in his counterparts’ ability to maintain a bella figura.
For example, anyone who criticizes and exposes a colleague in front of a team of people makes gross figura through his insensitive behavior. In Italy, only a small distinction is made between the issue at hand and the relationship. Objectively meant criticism will therefore also always register on a personal level and damage the bella figura of all those involved – the one being criticized as well as the one who is criticizing.
Bella figura in professional life
The principle of bella figura means to treat one another in a respectful and polite way, whether in meetings, in daily collaboration or in hard negotiations. Mutual appreciation, etiquette and good behavior are a must in Italian business culture. Direct confrontations are avoided, and everyone always behaves diplomatically. Even impatience is frowned upon as a bad quality.
It is therefore counterproductive to put pressure on Italian business partners, to insist on a quick decision or a quick deal or even to use negotiation tricks that put the other side in a tight spot. All this makes for a brutta figura that Italian business partners will not overlook.
Italians want to create an atmosphere in which all business partners feel comfortable. While not as pronounced as in Asia, it is important in Italian business interaction that one can keep face and seek a win-win situation for everyone.
In business meetings with Italians, you should try to cut a bella figura in every way. Focus on your outward appearance and your good manners rather than on a stylish presentation of your products and services to develop a willing cooperation that puts all parties at ease.
Katrin Koll Prakoonwit