In Italy, every conversation starts with small talk in order to create a good atmosphere through similarities and common ground. Be appreciative of the country and its people, art and culture as well as its design and architecture. Avoid any critical comments.
Personal matters such as place of origin, family and hobbies are also talked about. If your Italian interlocutors compliment you, accept the compliments gracefully without unnecessary modesty. Make sure to compliment them in return.
Lively and fast-talking
Italians communicate in a fast, lively and verbose fashion. They also gesticulate a lot. Their expressive nature always contains a certain amount of razzle and dazzle.
Executives from countries and cultures where people tend to speak in a more factual and reserved way often find it difficult to follow the flow of speech of their Italian counterparts. If you wait for a break to say something, be assured that in Italy this break doesn’t come.
Italians are used to interrupting each other and speaking at the same time. They indicate their interest in what has been said by asking questions or making comments. The conversation is a lively back and forth.
And so the discussion often ends up being a monologue by the Italian party, which both sides find unsatisfactory. This is why we recommend speaking up and take the floor as well in Italy!
Indirect and contextual speech
Despite the fact that Italians use a lot of words, Italy is considered a high-context culture. This means that people tend to express themselves indirectly and diplomatically. Allusions and suggestions play an important role and verbal statements should always be considered in their overall context. How something is said is often more important than what is said. Facial expressions, gestures and non-verbal cues are also key to understanding what is being said.
Despite their expressive nature, Italians will rarely express criticism openly. The Italian principle of bella figura, i.e. the desire to cut a good figure at all times, is similar to keeping one’s face in Asia. It is therefore important not only to always and in every circumstance cut a good figure yourself but also to ensure that your counterpart can uphold his bella figura.
For example, anyone who criticizes an employee in front of an assembled team and thus exposes him or her, is a brutta figura, in other words, a bad figure, due to their insensitive behaviour.
Only a limited distinction is made in Italy between the factual and relationship levels. Objectively meant criticism will therefore always also have an impact on the personal level and harm the bella figura of all those involved—this is true for both the person who is criticized and the person who is the critic.
All in all, it is of prime importance to Italians to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable. Everyone must be confident that no one else will embarrass them.
Criticism is only expressed in private and in a very indirect way. Make sure to highlight a number of positive things before subtly pointing out any critical points.
Please keep in mind: communicating in a relationship conducive manner is a must in Italy.
Verbal or written?
As Italians like to talk and talk a lot, verbal communication is very important. If you want to clarify something quickly with your Italian business partner, pick up the telephone. It is essential to both know and use your Italian business partner’s mobile phone number. Better still, arrange a personal meeting with a lot of relationship-building small talk and a good meal.
E-mails, letters and faxes, on the other hand, are often ignored; a written list of problem points or instructions is also quickly perceived as aggressive.