ITALY: WHEN IN ROME. - Italians may appear disorganised, but they are excellent communicators. And this outgoing nature makes them great to do business with, says Richard D Lewis.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Italians may appear disorganised, but they are excellent communicators. And this outgoing nature makes them great to do business with, says Richard D Lewis.

The Italians are charming, intelligent people to whom Europe owes a great cultural debt. They are excellent communicators and combine ultra-keen perception with ever-present flexibility. Their continuous exuberance and loquacious persuasiveness often produces an adverse reaction with reserved Britons, factual Germans and taciturnScandinavians.

Yet such northerners have everything to gain by adapting to the Italians' outgoing nature, meeting them halfway in their idea for dialogue. There is plenty of business to be done with the Italians, who export vigorously in order to survive.

Italians may appear to be disorganised, but don't forget Italy is the fifth-largest industrial nation in the world and has outperformed even the Germans and Americans in such areas as domestic appliances and some categories of cars. On top of that they have an enormous hidden or black economy, synonymus with shady dealings. While Italian business dealings may feel dishonest - businesses frequently get around rules - remember that this is the way they do business and you may well be able to benefit from this flexibility. They will regard your rather rigid, law-abiding approach as short-sighted or even blind. In this respect they probably are closer to reality than you are and less ideal-bound. They do not consider their own approach to be in any way corrupt.

Italian negotiators often seem to proceed in a roundabout manner and will discuss things from a personal or semi-emotional angle, while a northerner tries to concentrate on the benefit for his company and stick to the facts of the particular deal. Italians will also jump ahead to later points on the agenda or will re-discuss points that you think have already been settled. If you are in the chair, you have to create some kind of order, but you can only do this by establishing firm rules in advance.

One German I know used yellow, red and green cards to discipline people at meetings. This humorous but firm approach achieved the desired result.

A lack of self-discipline is also demonstrated by poor time-keeping.

Italians have a different concept of time from that of northerners and Americans. They do not arrive for appointments on time. Punctuality in Milan means they are 20 minutes late and in Rome half an hour. You will not be able to change this, and must therefore adapt. Be prepared to wait 15-45 minutes before your Italian counterpart appears. Alternatively you can deliberately show up half an hour late.

Italian wordiness versus north European succinctness is a constant pain in internal company communication. Both sides wish to achieve clarity, but one is doing so through many words and the other through short messages and memos. A compromise must be reached. The northerner must teach himself to be more explicit and explanatory, but also encourage his Italian colleague to be more concise, economical with words and ideas, and, when practical, to put them in writing.

Overall then, a northerner should approach business deals with Italians with adequate time for the exercise and a store of patience. He must be prepared to discuss at length and maintain calm. An Italian may get overheated on some point, but changes a moment later. Italians quarrel also among themselves at the table, but are solid colleagues thereafter. In the course of doing business, you may speak much more freely with Italians than with most Europeans, but do not exaggerate directness or bluntness. Remember that their communication style is eloquent, wordy, demonstrative and apparently emotional. This is normal for them, over-dramatic for you. Do not be led into the belief that waving arms and talking with the hands denotes instability.

They think you, by contrast, are rather wooden and distant.

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