8 Major Differences Between U.S. and Italian Business Culture

poster in Italian cafe

Italy has a somewhat unique economy split between high-profile international companies like Ferrari and smaller family businesses that center on natural products like fine wine and olive oil. This means that not all Italian company interactions take place in a boardroom.

How can you prepare to make an awesome first impression on your study abroad business trip to Verona? Here’s a list of eight main differences between business culture in Italy vs the U.S.

Relaxed Punctuality

While business meetings almost always start on time in American companies, Italians take a much more relaxed view towards punctuality. Don’t be surprised if you have to wait a while for a business contact to show up or for an important client to finish up his phone call before inviting you into the office. Of course, you’re still expected to show up on time.

Better Business Through Friendship

In the U.S., cordiality is important, but most companies prefer to get down to business right away. For Italians on the other hand, closing sales is never the main focus of interactions; instead, building a close relationship with future customers is key. Many initial meetings take place at restaurants over lunch.

Here are a few tips for creating a warm relationship with someone you’re probably meeting for the first time:

  • Be genuine: Fake smiles aren’t fooling anyone in Verona
  • Look for common interests: If you love food, you’ll get along great with people in Italy
  • Learn to relax: Don’t look at your watch constantly
  • Try to speak some Italian: This tells coworkers and potential clients that you’re interested in them, even if it’s only a few words

Stylish Dress

Casual Friday isn’t a thing in Italy; here, businesspeople dress to the nines pretty much all the time. The first impression you make depends greatly on what you’re wearing.

Italian business attire is formal and conservative – so don’t worry about accessories – but focused on high-quality, name-brand pieces that can get somewhat expensive. Italy is home to Milan fashion, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Armani, after all.

Common Men’s Business Attire

  • Dark or neutral suits
  • Long-sleeve shirts
  • Fashionable silk ties
  • High-quality shoes
  • Excellent cologne

Common Women’s Business Attire

  • Formal pantsuits
  • Knee-length skirt and business jackets
  • Reserved-but-stylish blouses
  • Two- or three-inch high heels
  • Designer perfume

Italians respect you more when you wear elegant clothing. You may want to invest in a custom-tailored silk or wool suit and a good pair of leather shoes or designer heels if you’re going to work in Italy for a while. Dress chic all the time and you’ll fit in without problems.

Food Appreciation

Dining plays a huge part of life in Italy, including in the business world. Eating at local restaurants with clients or coworkers is a great way to form strong relationships. Never refuse a lunch or dinner invitation in Italy – you’ll definitely offend your host.

  • When offered food – unless you have an allergy – always eat it with a smile
  • Use a fork and knife to eat pizza, fruit and most other things
  • Only give presents if your host gives you one first

Importance of Respect

Respect is very important in Italian culture, and you’ll especially want to show it to superiors and older people.

  • Stand up when someone senior enters the room
  • Don’t give off an attitude of ‘the American way is better’
  • Listen attentively.
  • Look Italians in the eye when you speak

Also, always use lei – a formal version of “you” – when addressing superiors and people you don’t know well, instead of the informal tu. Use signore or signora – Mr. or Mrs. – and last names in formal situations.

Italian Stereotypes

Life in Verona is nothing like what you’ve probably seen in movies. Italians don’t like it when visitors ask about topics like the mafia or other TV stereotypes. No matter what, never criticize the Pope, local football teams or Italian customs; it is OK to try to learn more about local cooking and places though.

Directness

Italian businesspeople value directness and sometimes distrust people who don’t participate in a conversation. Speaking up enthusiastically with ideas or opinions is totally acceptable and even desirable. Don’t get offended if someone else interrupts when you’re talking; it just means they view you as part of the team.

Greetings

Italian business etiquette dictates that you shake hands with everyone in a group when arriving or leaving; a simple wave doesn’t cut it. People in Italy have less personal space than Americans, so your Italian coworkers will probably stand a little closer than you’re used to.

Have Fun While Studying Abroad for Business

Italians are famous for their laidback attitude, hospitality, easygoing smile and curiosity about foreigners, so if you end up making some mistakes, it’s not the end of the world. If you learn to laugh at yourself, small errors in Italian business etiquette can actually help you get along better with people.

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