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The People

Cultural achievement is Italy’s greatest source of pride. Inventiveness, imagination, intelligence and education are prized. Personal relations are scrupulously maintained with loyalty highly valued, especially in families. The family is the most important affiliation in Italy.

Meeting and Greeting

  • When being introduced during a business or social meeting, shake hands with everyone present -- men, women and children. Shake hands again when leaving.
  • Ladies should extend their hand first to men.
  • Friends may greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks.

Names and Titles

  • Use last names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your Italian host or colleagues to use their first names.
  • Females almost always use their maiden name, especially in business and on legal documents. They generally use their married names or a combination of their married names and maiden names outside of business.

Body Language

  • Maintain eye contact while talking. Otherwise Italians might think you are hiding something.
  • To beckon a waiter or waitress raise your index finger and make eye contact.
  • Italians are known for using the most body language of all European nations.

Corporate Culture

  • Italians take punctuality for business meetings very seriously and expect that you will do likewise; call with an explanation if you are delayed. Deliberate lateness in business is viewed as sloppy.
  • Business cards are used only in business, not socially, unless requested.
  • Business cards are exchanged only at the first meeting and should be handed to recipients, not tossed at them. Do not give a business card to the same person more than once.
  • Present a business card to each person attending a meeting.
  • When receiving a business card, look at the name and title carefully, then set it on the table in front of you or in your briefcase.
  • English is quite common in business, but check ahead of time to find out if an interpreter is necessary.
  • Generally, business discussions begin after a few minutes of small talk.
  • Establish personal relationships with Italians. Italians like to deal with people they know and trust. They also tend to believe that work should not be a burden or taken too seriously.
  • Relationships must be profitable and mutually beneficial to gain total cooperation.
  • Pragmatism and talent for improvisation are considered keys to success. Protocol, rules and organization are often ignored.
  • Negotiations usually take time and patience. Don’t rush them. Italians may misinterpret this as a weakness.
  • Italian companies are fast to identify and exploit a niche without doing an in-depth study. Strategic plans are rarely written and are never long term.
  • Meeting style is unstructured and informal. Formal presentations are not common.
  • Business decisions are often made and agreed to privately before meetings. The purpose of a meeting is often to evaluate the mood, sense support and test water -- not to make decisions.
  • Meetings may be staged to exhibit eloquence, personality and status.
  • Decisions that are made and agreed to may never be implemented.
  • Do not call an Italian business person at home unless it is an emergency.

Dining and Entertainment

  • Business entertainment is generally done at lunch or dinner in a restaurant.
  • Dinner entertainment is more of a social occasion to get to know people. Business discussions are usually very limited.
  • If you invite, you pay for the meal.
  • Business may be discussed at a breakfast meeting, but it is not common.
  • Cocktails are not common in Italy. Drinking without eating is rare. Hard drinking is unusual and not appreciated. Even mild intoxication is considered ill-mannered. Women drink very little in Italy.
  • At formal occasions, women generally do not propose toasts.
  • Italians do not use bread plates. Break bread and place it next to your plate on the table.
  • Ask for your check when you are finished eating. It may not be brought to you until you ask.
  • Do not leave the table until everyone is finished.
  • Roll pasta with your fork on the sides of your pasta plate. Don’t roll pasta on your spoon.
  • Keep both hands above the table during dinner -- never on your lap. Do not put your elbows on the table.
  • Use your knife (not your fingers) to pick up pieces of cheese to put them on your bread or cracker.
  • Eat fruit with a fruit knife and fork, except for grapes and cherries.
  • When finished eating, place knife and fork (tines up) side by side on the plate at the 5:25 position. The fork should be on the left and the knife should be on the right with the blade of the knife facing the fork.
  • Keep your wineglass almost full if you don’t want a refill.
  • Burping is considered extremely vulgar.
  • When invited to a home, guests arrive 15 to 30 minutes after the stated time.
  • Allow hostess to begin eating before guests.
  • Wait for hostess to offer second helping.
  • Italians are proud of their homes and love to give tours. Feel free to ask for a tour when invited into someone’s home.


  • Italy is a major center of European fashion. Italians are chic. Even people in small towns spend a great deal of money on their wardrobes and dress well at all times.
  • Dress elegantly but conservatively.
  • Jackets and ties are required in better restaurants.
  • Old, torn, dirty clothing are seldom seen and not appreciated.
  • Men and women dress conservatively and formally for business (men: suits and ties; women: dresses or suits). Women should wear feminine clothing.


  • Italians are very generous gift givers. You may be very embarrassed if you give a “cheap” or practical gift.
  • Gifts should be beautifully wrapped.
  • Gifts are opened in front of the giver when received.
  • Gifts are generally not exchanged at initial business meetings, however, having a gift in your briefcase in case your Italian hosts give you one is recommended.
  • Gifts may be exchanged at the end of negotiations, but not necessarily.
  • High quality liquor, gifts with company logos, desk accessories, music and books are appreciated.
  • When invited to someone’s home, always bring a small gift for the host or hostess.
  • Send flowers or a gift to the host's home the day of or the day after a party.
  • Give chocolates, flowers (an uneven number) and pastries.
  • Chrysanthemums are a symbol of death, red roses are symbols of love or passion.
  • Don’t give knives or scissors, which are considered bad luck.
  • Do not wrap a gift in black with gold ribbon, which symbolizes mourning.

Helpful Hints

  • Italians are open, curious and tolerant of others’ uniqueness and manners. They will tolerate lateness, inefficiency and sincere mistakes, but dislike arrogance and rudeness.
  • Italians enjoy a lot of good humor and can be self-deprecating.
  • Send a thank you note after being entertained or given a gift.
  • Stand when an older person enters the room.
  • Give attention to or bring a small gift for children.
  • Cover your mouth if you must yawn, but try not to yawn.
  • Men should always remove their hats when entering a building.
  • Don’t remove your shoes in public.
  • Refrain from asking personal questions.

Especially for Women

  • Foreign women can do business without great difficulty in Italy. Being a woman may even be considered an advantage in some circumstances.
  • Only 38% of Italian women under 65 are in the labor market -- one of the lowest percentages in Western Europe. Few Italian women hold managerial positions.
  • The Italians are generally not inhibited when interacting with the opposite sex. Flirtation is part of the spirit of life in Italy.
  • Do not pour wine if you are a guest. This is considered “unfeminine” by Italians.

-- Excerpted from the “Put Your Best Foot Forward” series by Mary Murray Bosrock. These publications are available for the U.S., Asia, Mexico/Canada, Russia, Europe and South America.

Mary Bosrock
International Education Systems
1814 Hillcrest Avenue, Suite 300
St. Paul, MN 55116
Visit our web sites at


How to Do Business in Italy

by Injung Choi,
Marketing Automation Specialist


Currently doing business in Italy, or plan to in the near future? Consider this…

  • Italy is the world’s 10th largest economy, yet it has the third largest bond market!
  • Italy's major industries include tourism, machinery, iron and steel, chemicals, food processing, textiles, motor vehicles, clothing, footwear, and ceramics.
  • With almost 40 million visitors and more hotel rooms than any other nation in Europe, Italy is the fourth most visited country in the world.
  • New York City is farther south than Rome, with the same latitude as Naples. However, it only snows briefly once every several years in Rome and Naples, while in New York it frequently snows in the winter.

Long a world-renowned destination for tourists, Italy also holds abundant opportunities for business travelers. However, it also has many social and workplace customs that are quite different than what you find in the United States. By highlighting some of these key differences, let's look at ways to prepare you for your next Italian business trip.

Important tips

  • Do not give gifts that are obviously a vehicle for you company’s logo. Instead, items such as liquor, delicacies, or crafts from your country are appreciated. It also doesn’t hurt to bring flowers or chocolates to your Italian associate’s secretary/assistant!
  • Italians consider wine as a food to be sipped, not as a form of relaxation. Drinking too much in public can be considered rude.
  • Everyone tends to speak at once at Italian gatherings. It is possible to conduct a more orderly meeting, but do not be offended if you are interrupted.
  • Corporations have a horizontal chain of authority, called a cordata, which can be confusing to North Americans. This parallel channel is based on levels of personal, reciprocal concern, and should never be taken lightly.


  • Be prompt and expect business to be conducted with pressure and efficiency, especially in the industrial north. High-ranking businesspeople may be late, but typically people are quite punctual.
  • Italians prefer to deal with people they know, even if they are only mildly acquainted. Find a way to be introduced to your prospect, be it at an event or through a mutual acquaintance.
  • When making an appointment, it is best to write an e-mail request in Italian, and then follow up with a phone call. Your will receive a response much more quickly if the request is in their native language.
  • The best time for a business meeting is between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. or after 3 p.m. Be aware of summer vacation periods and public holidays; most firms are closed during the month of August.


  • Understanding the chain of command within the business is crucial to success. Decisions are made only by the highest level of authority, but it may not be clear who that is by title alone. When looking for someone to facilitate business, use a contact who is knowledgeable about the internal company structure.
  • Refrain from showing a sense of urgency in the negotiation process; this is thought to weaken your bargaining power.
  • As a bargaining tactic, your Italian counterpart may make dramatic changes to the contract at the 11th hour.
  • Business cards are to be exchanged at business functions only; not social events. You will find that the more important the person is, the less information he or she will have on a card.


  • Hospitality is important in the business culture; turning down an invitation to dine is considered rude.
  • Do not extend an invitation to your Italian host without some help. Business dinners should include a small number of people, and you will likely not know the intricacies of who should and should not be invited. Your client’s secretary/assistant should be able to help you with this, as well as choosing a location.
  • Picking up the check is considered a sign of prestige. At times, Italians will go so far as to provide the waitstaff with a generous tip prior to dinner, to ensure that you do not get the bill. Female executives may find it extremely difficult to pay.
  • Keep the receipt for the restaurant bill; “tax police” occasionally check restaurant bills outside for adherence to tax laws.

For your business document translation needs in Italy, contact McElroy Translation. Visit our website to learn more about how we can help you and your company become successful in your international business ventures.

Morrison, Terri, and Wayne A. Conaway (2006). Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, 2nd edition. Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation.


Published - February 2012

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