Doing business in Italy can be challenging. Despite its glamorous image and exciting investment opportunities, Italy has some deeply rooted structural problems that can negatively impact business dealings.
Factors affecting business – like corruption, political interference, organised crime, and unemployment – manifest differently across Italy, highlighting the economic disparities between the prosperous north and the less developed south. In addition to the country’s economic realities, expats will also have to navigate the complex practices of business etiquette and business culture in Italy.
Business hours vary and are usually between 8am and 7pm with a two-hour lunch break, although this might not be the case with larger businesses in major cities.
Italian is the language of business in Italy. While many Italians do speak English, expats should not assume that this is the case.
Italians are known for being stylish. ‘La bella figura’ is a guiding philosophy for many Italians and involves always presenting one’s best – from appearance to interactions. Formal, classic dress is usually a safe bet, but expats should make an effort even in casual settings.
Gifts are not necessarily expected, especially in the beginning stages of negotiations. It may be best to give a gift in return for receiving one first. Quality and presentation are essential, although gifts do not have to be lavish. Sharp objects, chrysanthemums, red roses and black packaging should be avoided. Common gifts include alcohol, desk accessories and books. Gifts are opened right away.
A standard handshake is used when greeting, being introduced and leaving. Close associates and friends may greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. Use formal titles when addressing associates – signore (Mr) or signora (Mrs) plus surname – until invited to do otherwise.
Women are under-represented in the higher levels of business in Italy, although there are notable exceptions to the rule. Expat businesswomen are usually treated with respect and courtesy and should not be surprised if they are complimented on their appearance.
Business culture in Italy
The general business culture in Italy is somewhat different from what many expats will be used to. Understanding Italian business culture and how Italian businesses interact with others is crucial for expats to adapt to their new environment and overcome common obstacles.
The centrality of the family unit in Italian society profoundly influences the Italian business hierarchy and underscores the importance of relationships in business dealings in Italy. In practical terms, many companies in Italy are family-owned small to medium enterprises, and even some of its biggest corporations are also family owned.
The way this expresses itself in the business environment is that decisions are usually made from the top down by business owners or a small core of decision-makers who are often family.
Seniority is respected in Italian business, although the power of an individual manager often depends on their relationships with those above them. As a result, a lot of time is spent networking and maintaining business relationships in Italy.
The family-orientated nature of business in Italy means that relationships are highly valued. Outsiders should expect to spend a fair amount of time networking and getting to know their associates. For this reason, a lot of time is spent getting acquainted at meetings, especially in the early stages of the business relationship.
The communication style in Italian business is highly expressive, with a preference for gesturing and emotional debate. These can border on the theatrical and are common in business interactions. Italians usually prefer face-to-face, verbal communication to impersonal, written exchanges.
Conducting business meetings in Italy may involve flexible agendas and frequent interruptions, reflecting a unique aspect of Italian business meeting etiquette. It is not uncommon for decisions to be made before a meeting takes place, so they often serve the purpose of confirming decisions and informing those who are present. While the Italian meeting space might seem informal, expats should still take meetings seriously and be punctual.
Attitude to foreigners
Italians' generally positive attitude towards international businesspeople is shaped by the country's experience with tourists, which can affect one's experience working as an expat in Italy. On the other hand, the country has been dealing with waves of illegal immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Balkans, which has led some Italians to develop a negative attitude towards migrants from these areas. This usually has more to do with these new arrivals’ legal status than their national or cultural origins.
Dos and don’ts of business in Italy
- Do have a sense of humour, but avoid being too graphic
- Do talk about movies, art, travel and positive aspects of life in Italy
- Do dress well and display confidence – la bella figura is about more than looks alone
- Do stand when an older person enters the room and pay attention to children if there are any present
- Don’t talk about the mafia, politics or personal finances
- Don’t ask overly personal questions
How do expats experience Italian business culture?
"Work hours can be very long, unpredictable or even a bit strange." Sarah compares work culture in Italy to the UK in her expat interview.
"Keep in constant personal contact with your partners; networking is the one and only method here." Stef, a Dutch expat in Italy, gives tips on doing business in Italy.
►For an overview of the job market, see Working in Italy
Are you an expat living in Italy?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Italy. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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