Although the cliché suggests that, in Italy, you greet people with a kiss on the cheek, in a business context you should stick to a handshake.
Use of titles
The Italians are very proud of their titles. You should therefore show respect by using their title when you address a business partner, unless you are on first-name terms, when you can drop it.
Make a good impression
The ‘bella figura’ is important. You should be well groomed and wear high-value accessories. In particular, your shoes should be clean - your Italian business partner is likely to pay particularly close attention to this. For business meetings, your clothes should reflect the social situation; choose low-key, somewhat formal clothing. You shouldn’t wear anything too casual - short-sleeved shirts are not the norm.
Choose the right small-talk themes
Italian business partners will react badly to some themes.
It is better to avoid the following:
• The Mafia
• South Tirol
• Second world war
You can win brownie points with the following themes:
• Italian football successes
It is helpful to speak a little Italian; not all Italians can communicate with you in English.
First the relationship, then down to business
You will need some patience, because in Italy the first meeting is often about getting to know you and building a relationship. Don’t get frustrated if the negotiations seem to be progressing slowly. Only when you have built up a level of trust can you expect to complete the business. Take the time to nurture the relationship. Important: The person you are negotiating with is not usually the decision-maker; bear this in mind before you become too impatient.
Food and business go hand-in-hand
For Italians, food is a very important theme. If you receive an invitation to lunch or dinner, don’t decline it; that would be taken as an insult. Generally, you should expect to spend a lot of time eating with your business partners - probably much more than you are used to. Don’t simply order pizza or pasta; try a less well-known dish. Your business partner will be delighted. After an evening meal, it is usual to drink a coffee or espresso - never a cappuccino.
Cast aside your natural reserve
Silence is uncomfortable for many Italians. You will not come across well if you seem reserved, so try to overcome it by being enthusiastic and expressional. That applies to physical closeness too; Italians probably give you much less personal space than you are used to. You should not shy away; it won’t be well received if you seem stand-offish.
The theme of gifts should be treated carefully. You will naturally want to bring your business partner a small present, but there are a few things to be aware of. It begins with the packaging. In Italy, some colours are associated with bad luck and mourning. You should therefore avoid wrapping any gift in black, gold or lilac. If you are bringing flowers, you must pay attention to the number of blooms: 17 is an unlucky number, and you should avoid any bouquet or plant with 17 flowers. 13, on the other hand, is seen as a lucky number. Avoid very expensive gifts; this could be considered as bribery. For Italians, gifts with advertising print on them seem cheap, so avoid those too.
The well-known ‘ciao’ is reserved for friends. In a business context, you should always stick to the more formal ‘arrivederci’.