Doing Business in Italy
Italy became unified in 1870, and in 1946 it became a republic. It is a member of the European Union.
The country is divided into 20 regions, and contains two independent states, the Vatican City, in Rome, and San Marino, situated between the regions of Emilia Romagna and Marche. The regions differ greatly from one another in economic conditions, customs and language, which is a result of the fact that for centuries, before being made into one nation, the Italian peninsula and the main islands had been divided into separate states and dominions. After 1870, the introduction of compulsory elementary education and the migration of workers, normally from the poorer south to the wealthier north of Italy, helped the Italian language to become standardised and the people to develop a sense of belonging.
The advent of radio and television after World War II, however, is considered by many the principal factor in the diffusion of the Italian language. Today, dialects are still spoken by a large number of people, and their differences are such that they would make communication between Italians who do not share the same regional language very difficult, if they did not rely on the use of standard Italian.
The divide between the industrial north and the agricultural south is still existent, and in recent years a political party, the Northern League, has been asking for the creation of an independent northern state, which would put an end to the exploitation of the industrious north by the lazy and corrupt south. The reality is in fact much more complex: corruption and crime do not mire only Southern Italy, and, on the other hand, there are areas of the south that are flourishing, thanks to the development of tourism and manufacturing.
Business etiquette in Italy
The image of Italian business people in their fashionable designer clothes has led many to believe that to succeed in business in Italy first impressions and appearance are most important. If you are amongst those people who think that wearing Gucci accessories and Valentino suits will immediately turn a meeting into a success, your opinions may need to be readjusted. Italians do pay great attention to appearance but they are even more attentive to communication, ideas, and products.
Another widely held notion is that Italians have no time for punctuality. They are known to be genial and relaxed, to such an extent that they are supposed to disregard formality and punctuality. In fact, most Italians value punctuality as much as any other people do.
Just from these two examples it is obvious that there are many fallacies to avoid when one offers advice on how to achieve success in a business meeting in Italy. If you are planning a business meeting it would be useful to bear in mind the following:
Appointments should be made preferably in writing and well in advance, and be reconfirmed near the time.
Do not show urgency or impatience, as these are considered signs of weakness.
Background information about the company and its representatives ought to be gathered in preparation for the meeting.
Projects, plans or calling cards ought to have a classic font and a tasteful design.
A spruce formal attire should be preferred.
If one’s command of the Italian language is not good, the assistance of an interpreter is essential. Nevertheless, one should still try and learn how to greet in a formal situation. Different dialects are spoken in the various Italian regions, and they are all quite dissimilar from the official language; however, business and official meetings are conducted in Italian.
“Buongiorno/buonasera” is the correct form of greeting when meeting somebody for the first time, and, on leaving “arrivederci”. If the relationship becomes less formal, then “salve” is a more appropriate greeting, whereas “ciao”, both on arrival and when taking leave, is the most informal salutation.
Introduce yourself with both name and surname and address your interlocutors by their title and surname. The use of a professional title, instead of the generic “Signor/Signora”, is to be preferred. This will reflect the speaker’s familiarity with, and respect for, his/her interlocutors’ achievements. The title of “Doctor” (“Dottore/Dottoressa”) is awarded to any university graduate, but law or engineering graduates, for instance, should be addressed as “Avvocato” or “Ingegnere”.
On arrival and when taking leave, hands are shaken firmly and eye contact is maintained.
During a conversation, self-confidence and interest are displayed by keeping eye contact.
Not all assumptions about the Italian people are wrong, however. Their conviviality, for instance, is no myth, and during business transactions there will be recurrent occasions to adjourn to a bar or a restaurant. Work lunches and dinners are organized with the purpose not only of discussing business-related issues, but also of establishing good relationships with clients and collaborators. Over protracted lunches formal dealings lose some of their initial ceremoniousness and the use of first names is often introduced. Personal contacts are extremely important and social meetings are a way to create new ones or consolidate older ones. If one is invited to a private
function, flowers should be sent or gifts should be offered.
Opening times and public holidays
Normal business hours are from 9.00 to 18.00, with an hour for lunch between 13.00 and 15.00. Shops, except for the large department stores, normally close at 13.00 and re-open at 17.00, until 20.00. Banks open at 8.30 and close at 14.00, but some will re-open for a couple of hours in the afternoon - business times tend to vary slightly from town to town. Most businesses close in August, when the great majority of Italians take their summer holidays.
Most of the Italian people are Catholic, and even if regular church attendance is very low, the majority of Italians still observes and take part in religious festivals and rituals. Every day of the year is dedicated to a saint and in the past many were the public holidays marked for religious celebrations. Today Italy retains only a few of these vacations. However, every town and village has a patron saint, and in his/her honour processions and festivities are organised, and shops, banks and offices are closed, even if it is not a national holiday. Therefore, it is wise to gather some information on the region one is about to visit to avoid inconvenience.
Here is a list of public holidays:
1 January (New Year’s Day)
6 January (Epiphany)
25 April (Liberation Day)
1 May (Labour Day)
2 June (Republic Day)
15 August (Assumption)
1 November (All Saints)
8 December (Immaculate Conception)
25 December (Christmas Day)
26 December (Boxing Day)
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If you would like to know more about Italy, please visit our country profile page.
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