When I moved to Italy for the third time, it was for an expatriate assignment at a company I’d been at for 4 years. It’s not an overstatement to say that the first few months were traumatic: finalizing my work visa was a bureaucratic nightmare. I couldn’t find an apartment. My boyfriend at the time (now husband) was living in Sweden. And finally, even though I spoke Italian and knew how to do my job, there was a disconnect at work. This post is about the work part, and some things I learned the hard way about doing business in Italy.
If you accomplish only one thing during your business trip, it should be to build relationships with your Italian contacts. If you’ve done that, the details you didn’t get to can be sewn up by phone, email, or video conference when you get home. So make the time to chat in the hallway or by the water cooler. Ask them about themselves and their country (their part of the country, and the town or area their family is from), and accept offers to go for an espresso, which may literally be a 2-minute trip, if you’re just going to the coffee machine in the hallway.
If you’ve set the meeting to start at 10 – which is by the way, the ideal time to start a business meeting in Italy – don’t worry if people are still chatting outside the meeting room at 10.05. The first few times I called meetings in Italy, I’d arrive on time, and nobody else would be in the meeting room. I’d manage to corral a few people from the coffee machine, run out to get others on smoke break, and come back to find that the original ones had just popped out again (they saw their meeting colleagues at the coffee machine). If people don’t wander in within the first 10 minutes, consider enlisting the managers’ help in getting their teams into the meeting. Which brings us to…
Know who the boss is, and treat them like the boss. In Italy this just means a level of respect: introduce yourself to them first (presuming you know who they are), make eye contact while discussing key points, and address important questions directly to that person.
Americans, in general, like to make decisions and act on them as soon as possible after making them. Then if it turns out to be the wrong decision, Americans are very good at changing it, and acting right away on the new decision. (Italians are simultaneously annoyed by and in awe of this American skill, incidentally.) In general, Italians place a lot of value on thinking through an idea and discussing it thoroughly before, and maybe at the expense of, making a decision. So: decisions may not get made as quickly as you’d like. You may leave a meeting with no decision taken, and that’s fine. If you’ve got the relationship, you can continue the conversation later.
Having an agenda at an Italian business meeting is important because it will show that you’ve thought through the topic. But put items in order of priority in case you don’t get through the whole agenda. During the meeting, it’s important to let discussion flow (see above). Expect to get off topic and run behind schedule. Take your cues from the Italian management at the meeting on when to get things back on topic. The rest of the agenda can be discussed over dinner, or by phone once you get home.
Most importantly, have fun if you can. Italians are proud of their country (as long as you don’t talk about politics or the mafia) and want you to love it too. So ooh and ahh about as much as possible and be appreciative if they take you on any tourist outings. Respect lunch time, dinner time, coffee breaks, and the food culture in general. Enjoy the food, ask questions about the art and architecture, and don’t worry about all the details you wanted to discuss. Because, you know, you can tie up the details after you get home.
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