Doing Business in Italy: Three Key Concepts You Need to Know

Maybe you are already on your way to a business meeting in Italy. You don't have time to read a book but if you have just a few minutes on the trip you can still learn enough to make a difference.  The secret is to forget surface details like handshakes -- you can work these out by watching and asking -- and focus instead on three basic concepts that underlie Italian business culture: relationships, flexibility and hierarchy.

1. RELATIONSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT. In Italy personal relationships are very important so you need to get to know people at least a little before you can start talking about business. This has many practical consequences. You need to allow time for some small talk when you meet someone -- perhaps talking about your trip, your family, your hobbies. You should also try to eat lunch or dinner with your Italian contacts or at least go with them for a coffee. Don't worry if you don't like coffee, go anyway and drink something else or even nothing --- it is not about the coffee anyway. This emphasis on personal relationships means that it is also more effective to talk to someone on the phone than to send an email, though the best plan is to do both; the call makes sure your mail goes to the top of the pile. Another consequence of relationships is that it is always better to approach people through a shared connection when you contact them for the first time. This changes your status from stranger to someone who is trusted. The focus on relationships also means that your Italian business friends often prioritize relationships over schedules and rules, leading to the second key culture factor: flexibility.

2. ALLOW FOR FLEXIBILITY. In Italy relationships come first, so that if someone has to choose between talking to an old friend they just met in the corridor or get to a meeting on time they will usually choose the former and you would be considered rude not to do the same. This partly explains the different attitude to punctuality. They are not trying to be punctual and failing; they just have other priorities. You see the same flexibility in their attitude to planning, where changes are commonplace and just accepted as part of the process. Because of this flexibility in plans it is usual to send reminders closer to an appointment. This can be difficult for people used to rigid planning but is very effective in fast-changing situations where adaptability is useful. Deadlines, too, are usually not rigid and when someone gives you a deadline they often exaggerate the urgency assuming you will be late; when a deadline is absolute it is best to be clear about this. There is a similar flexibility in the way rules are applied, so that circumstances are usually taken into account and it would be considered wrong and unfair to apply a rule without any exceptions.

3. UNDERSTAND THE HIERARCHY. If you are coming from North Europe, the United States or Australia you will probably find that Italian business organizations are more hierarchical than you are used to. This can be very difficult to  deal with at first but it is very important to understand how it works. You should contact people at the right level and also to make sure that you put remember to copy people's bosses in emails -- failing to do so can cause offense. You should also discuss problems in informal private meetings, not in front of others in an open meeting.  Take special care when correcting people who are above you in the hierarchy. Never do this in front of others and never do it directly. If you are not sure how to handle a situation like this it is usually better to discuss with an Italian colleague, who will know an effective way that doesn't cause anyone to lose face.

Italian business culture is obviously more complex than this, but with just these three basic concepts you will be able to make more sense of what is happening and to avoid many cultural misunderstandings. Remember always that, like everywhere else, every individual is different and that there are some regional differences.  One thing that all Italians have in common is that it is easy to start a conversation, so if you want to know more about their culture just ask. That way you get the answers you need but at the same time you break the ice and start building relationships with people.  If you have any other questions or comments you are welcome to add them in comments section or through Twitter ,  Facebook ,  LinkedIn  or  Google+

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How Building Team Culture Makes Global Teams More Effective
Culture and Technology. How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
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Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
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Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

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