When in Rome (or Milan), Do As Italian Businesspeople Do
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2022 -- Italians by nature are congenial, passionate, life-loving souls who savor food, wine, adventure and conversation with style.

But what if you, the American business traveler, are trying to sell an Italian a software system, a capital expenditure or some kind of widget?

I put that question to Caroline Schaefer, a life coach and business consultant who was born, raised and is based in Milan. She's co-author of Business Etiquette, a 180-page book that's entirely in Italian. That is a challenge for me who still struggles with the King's English, but Schaefer is forthcoming with English-language advice on how to navigate commercial and social intercourse in her homeland.

For starters, the dress code for Italian meetings depends on the company and the person you are contacting. If it is a banker, lawyer or middle- or senior-level executive with a more formal or traditional business, a tie for men is recommended and a business suit or dress for women. "But for a creative business--communications, design, film production, advertising--dress is not that formal," she explains.

And despite what you've heard about Italians' casual acquaintance with time and schedules, punctuality matters in business settings, Schaefer says. "It's even wise to arrive five minutes early so you can be introduced and brought to the person's office."

A little bit of small talk--ask about the family if you know he or she has one--is permissible to open up a meeting, Schaefer counsels. Italian business meetings tend to go long because discussions are wide-ranging. "We're not like the Germans where meetings are 'good morning,' then one, two, three, straight to the point. But we're not like India and China where meetings go on for hours and hours, either."

Venues for business meetings in Italy are limited to either the host's office or a business lounge at a hotel, "It's unusual to be invited to [your host's] home," she says.

Unlike Japan and some Asian countries where it is customary to bring a gift to a business meeting and usually one for the person's secretary, they are not expected in Italy. But they are not frowned upon, either. A coffee-table-sized picture book, heavy on visuals and lighter on text, referring to your region or your industry, is acceptable, says Schaefer.

Business entertaining--before, after or in lieu of a formal meeting--is also uncommon unless there is an established relationship. "The person extending the invitation pays the bill. If you're the seller, you pay."

A warning, however: After a business meeting it is not appropriate to invite a new contact out for an impromptu evening of entertainment or revelry. "After work," she says, "most Italians prefer to go back to their private lives."

On written business communications it's preferable to address the person as "Mr." or "Ms" and their last name, advises Schaefer. "Don't be informal unless, again, there is an established relationship." You can write E-mails or letters in English, but, before you do, get information about your counterpart's [grasp] of English. "The younger generation almost always speak English. Older Italians speak little English."

Translations into Italian should be accurate and concise. If it's a face-to-face meeting with an older C-suite Italian whose English is spotty, there is no problem asking if you can bring a translator along. Again, however, stick with a professional translator and not a pal who also speaks Italian.

Another tip, suggests Schaefer: Keep a modulated voice. "Americans talk very loud," she opines.

Telephone manners are important in Italy. Italian businesspeople carry and use mobile phones just as Americans do, she says, but "usually we don't ask for the mobile phone number. If it is written on the business card it is okay to use it, but let the person who hands you the card write it on the card. Do not ask if it's not offered."

Schaefer also says never answer an incoming phone call by simply saying "hello." Instead, answer with your family or last name and the name of your company to quickly identify yourself and make it easier for the caller. Use their last name in phone conversations to personalize it. (An example: "I agree with you, Mr. Tortini.") Always speak clearly and not too fast, she advises.

Never eat or drink while conversing with an Italian on the phone. It can be recognized and it is considered rude. Moreover, "if you tap on your laptop, tell the other person you are taking notes, otherwise it can be perceived you are doing something else while you are on the call."

Never ask an Italian businessperson for their personal or non-corporate E-mail address, Schaefer adds. "The only exception is if you've known each other for a long, long time."

What if your Italian client or contact has become a close personal friend and you are invited to a family wedding? "You absolutely send a gift from their wedding registry list and include a little, handwritten note," she stresses. "Likewise, if there's a death in the family, a handwritten note is compulsory and even a phone call is appreciated. No WhatsApp calls, no SMS and no E-mail. Ever."