Italian Business Etiquette
By all means this is not a guide which stereotypes the Italian people or is written in stone, these tips on Italian business etiquette are more so an opportunity to provide you with greater cultural awareness and understanding of what the ‘norms’ are in Italy when it comes to doing business. Remember to always respect the culture, values and traditions of your prospective clients.
Always be respectful of your prospective business partner’s culture and traditions. For further information have a look at our cultural training page.
Upon arrival and departure to and from a meeting it is the norm to shake hands. Once your relationship with your client is more established, it is not unusual upon meeting to embrace one another and give a hearty pat on the back. This is seen as a sign of how much your business relationship has progressed and is positive. On the whole, Italians can present themselves in a vivacious manner, this is seen as natural and if you shy away or distance yourself, or avoid eye contact, it can be considered as being rude. The key to successful business negotiations is to establish a strong relationship of trust and understanding.
Remember to approach your client by their last name or appropriate title until your client invites you to use their first name.
Planning your business meeting:
When setting up your meeting, the norm in most businesses and industries is to approach your client by email or fax, followed by a phone call depending on their response to arrange an initial meeting. In the Italian business environment, connections and networking are invaluable, and most business negotiations take place as a result of connections or through introductions by someone that is known and trusted. Such connections and networking are extremely useful to setting up your meeting.
In most businesses and industries, business meetings tend to take place in the morning or in the early afternoon.
Be aware of public holidays, Christmas and New Years and ensure that on setting up your meeting you have a full understanding of office working hours. Remember that August is the time when most Italians take their annual leave so it is not always the best time to arrange a business meeting.
Punctuality is a simple but important factor in establishing a strong business relationship. Never be late to your meeting as it is seen as unprofessional.
Make sure you have an Italian version of your business card with your contact details as well as your title and academic qualifications. You should present your card in a business environment, making sure you have sufficient cards for everyone present at your meeting. Generally business cards are not presented socially.
On receipt of your client’s business card, show interest, read it carefully and place it in front of you on the table or in your briefcase – do not shove it in your pocket and ignore it.
A successful business partnership with your Italian client will be based on trust and respect established by getting to know one another. Be patient as negotiations will take time.., in most businesses or industries rushing through the negotiation process is seen negatively and can be perceived as a sign of weakness on your behalf.
In most businesses and industries, meetings are not generally the time for making on the spot decisions, but more so a time to analyse information and facts. It is vital when you present your product or company that you have all the necessary documents in both Italian and English and that you have covered all the finer details. Ensuring that your information is presented in Italian is vital to business success. Always be aware that further meetings will take place in most businesses and industries working towards negotiations.
In most Italian businesses and industries, because of the vibrant nature of the culture, it will be expected that you present yourself, your product and your company in a passionate manner. Failure to do so could be seen as a lack of professionalism and a disinterested attitude on your behalf. Depending on the industry or business which you are prospecting, big presentations as can be seen in UK or American business environments are perceived as being academic and are not common. Information tends to be presented and discussed in smaller meetings. Generally the spoken word and a productive meeting, where a strong relationship has been established will go a lot further than the written word.
Do not begin to eat until the host says “Buòn appetito!”
Generally business meals are seen as social occasions and an opportunity to get to know one and other better and are not considered the right moment to negotiate or discuss business. However if this does take place it will be dependent on how well developed your relationship is with your prospective business partner(s). The best guideline is to follow their cue.
If you are inviting then it is expected that you pay the bill.
The hostess will generally begin to eat before guests.
Bread is usually served without butter. If you are offered a bread plate then more than likely some olive oil will be offered to dip into. If there is no bread plate then you can put your bread on your plate or on the table during the meal.
If you are eating a plate of delicious fresh pasta, remember that most Italians will roll the pasta on the side of the plate as opposed to using a spoon. Fruit are generally eaten with a knife and fork.
Upon finishing your meal, lay the knife and fork parallel to each other across the right side of the plate with the fork facing downwards.
Remember that in terms of alcoholic beverages, that although drinks will be available during the meal, mild intoxication is not well received. Women also drink very little in Italy. If you do not want a refill of wine, then keep your glass half full.
Italy is recognised all over the world for its incredible fashion labels and fashion is an important element to the business environment. You will be expected to follow this etiquette and dress conservatively, but elegantly for business meetings. Men should wear suits and ties and women dresses or suits, and on the whole, should be more femininely dressed. For gentlemen, jackets and ties are required in more expensive restaurants.
In must businesses and industries, in an initial meeting gifts are not generally exchanged. It is a good idea to be prepared just in case and have a small gift ready in case you are presented with one. At the end of negotiations gifts may be exchanged but this will depend on the situation.
Generally gifts that are well received are items such as expensive liquor, gifts with company logos, desk accessories, music and books. You should not offer gifts which have been wrapped in black paper with a gold ribbon as this is seen as a symbol of mourning.
If you are invited to your client’s home it is appropriate to give a gift or flowers on the day or the day after. If you are giving flowers, do not give chrysanthemums as they are seen as a symbol of death and red roses are seen as a symbol of passion and love.
Don’t let it happen to you:
A businessman attending meetings to negotiate the final part of a deal in Italy, failed to be patient during the process wanting an answer straightaway. He did not wait for negotiations to take place outside the meeting and consequently lost the deal. Had he realised how business negotiations work in Italy he would have understood that negotiations and finalising a deal require patience and understanding of the way business is done in Italy.
Always be respectful of your prospective business partner’s culture and traditions. Here at Planet Veritas, we offer cross-cultural training to ensure that your business dealings are not ruined by an inadequate knowledge of your target culture.