Isn’t it funny that Americans talk to everyone in public? Everywhere you go – the mall, the gas station, the hairdresser’s – random people will start chatting with you out of the blue. I experienced a rude awakening when I practiced this ‘normal’ (or, at least what I thought was normal) behavior when, as a young naïve 20-something-year-old, I went to live in Italy.
I was standing in the supermarket line waiting to pay for my cart full of stuff, which is kind of boring, right? Might as well strike up a meaningless conversation with the nearest innocent bystander!
By that time I spoke pretty good Italian, so I asked her where she had found such beautiful strawberries; I hadn’t seen those! I will always remember the look of shock on the woman’s face as she looked at me. Her wide-eyed expression said: “Who are you? Why are you talking to me? What do you want?”
I kept smiling and talking to her, and she eventually relaxed and realized I was just an unusually chatty person (or maybe a strange foreigner). She reluctantly engaged in a bit of small talk, I paid for my groceries and went on with my day.
Later I asked my Italian friends about it. They told me that in northern Italy, it is pretty uncommon to have small talk with strangers. Italians prefer to have an introduction by a trusted friend or colleague. Very different from the US, where total strangers talk to you wherever you go.
“Participate in the networking, introductions, and dinner parties which will help grow your network. Go with the flow of developing personal connections and how they make your life easier. “
After a few years, I returned home to the US for a visit, and I found total strangers talking to me in every public place. Suddenly, I became like the lady in the supermarket: suspicious! I was no longer used to it, and had a moment of reverse culture shock. I had to remind myself: oh yeah, this is normal in the US. Strangers talk to you everywhere you go!
One thing is for sure: though Italians don’t typically interact with unknown people in public, once they are introduced to you, they could become your friend for life. Italians are extremely loyal friends, and I have had the same friends from when I moved there 16 years ago, until now. But that first introduction or ‘link’ through a trusted colleague or friend is important.
These introductions are essential to accomplishing anything in Italian society. To put it simply, let’s imagine we have three people: Person A, B, and C. Imagine you are Person A, and you don’t know Person C, but Person B knows Person C. If Person B introduces you to Person C, Person C will immediately be your friend too. Of course this dynamic is common in many cultures, but in Italy, it is very prominent. After Person B’s introduction, it’s as if Person C now trusts you because you are Person B’s friend. It’s as if Person C regards Person B’s affiliation with you as a valid enough judgment of your character, and will not need to do their own evaluation of your integrity as a person.
In this way, your network can expand exponentially in Italy in a very short time. I found that personal introductions are absolutely crucial to doing business successfully in Italy. In fact, Italians usually will not seek any services without an introduction or a personal recommendation from a trusted friend. In my business, 98% of all clients come through personal recommendations, and other traditional forms of advertising don’t really work. That was just fine with me – word-of-mouth is the best form of advertising and it’s free!
In order to be cross-culturally competent, and thrive while doing business in the land of pizza, pasta, and wonderful red wine – observe these nuances about the way Italian society operates. Participate in the networking, introductions, and dinner parties which will help grow your network. Go with the flow of developing personal connections and how they make your life easier. One thing that’s for sure is that you will enjoy yourself in the process, because one of the tenets of life in Italy is “La Vita e’ Bella” – “Life is Beautiful.” Work hard, but enjoy yourself in the process. And don’t forget to have good wine and good conversation when the opportunities arise :).–