An Italian friend once told me "We’re proud of our creativity and history, but what makes us truly Italian are the five F's: food, fashion, football, Ferrari and fare una bella figura (more on that later). While these are undoubtedly several of Italy's more recognisable exports, the inhabitants of this sun-kissed peninsula have also impressed me with their strict adherence to social conventions and formality.
It should be said that as a foreign person doing business in Milan, you will be forgiven almost all gaffes; however, there are a few basic tenets of Italian business etiquette you should observe.
image courtesy of flickr/UK in Italy
When meeting someone within a formal situation, it's polite to say 'buongiorno' (bwohn JOHR-noh) good morning or 'buonasera' (bwoh-nah-SEH-rah) good afternoon or evening then state your name punctuated by a firm handshake. If you would like to say the Italian equivalent of 'nice to meet you,' say 'piacere' (pyah-TCHEH-reh) though its more literal translation would be ‘it’s a pleasure.’
Always remember to address Italian business partners with Signor/Signora or their preferred title + their last name, that is, until they've asked you to call them by their first names and greet you with a warm embrace. Once your meeting has concluded, say 'arrivederci' (ah-rrih-veh-DEHR-chih) or goodbye, and shake hands again.
image © LUXOS
In Italy your overall appearance can play a crucial role in business relations. Businessmen and women spend time and energy curating their fashionable, on-point ensembles as Italians judge others by their appearances and form their initial opinions from how well someone is dressed.
While men typically wear darker shades, suits, or sport coats, women don conservative, feminine outfits with simple, elegant jewellery (Learn more about how to dress like an Italian). Any Italian will tell you that shoes make the outfit: they are one of the first things to be noticed and will contribute greatly to whether or not you are making una bella figura.
La bella figura (“the beautiful figure”) is an essential philosophy that governs the Italian way of life. La bella figura can refer to your manners, social charm, overall appearance and spirit in any and all social situations. It's very important to make a good impression at all times.
image courtesy of flickr/Raffaele Esposito
Milan, although not the capital, is the country’s economic centre and has a rhythm that tends to move slightly faster than most Italian cities. So that stereotype you might have heard about Italians running late isn't necessarily applicable; punctuality is highly valued. It is however acceptable in most instances to be five to ten minutes late for an appointment. The most senior person can arrive last to a meeting, so everyone present has to wait for them for the meeting to begin.
image courtesy of flickr/UK in Italy
Italians prefer face-to-face contact for getting down to business so in-person meetings are a must in developing close and lasting working relationships. If you are getting together with a group of Italians to talk business, be ready for less structure than you might be used to, as agendas aren’t mandatory. If there is an agenda present, they are typically quite flexible. Needless to say, it’s recommended that you simply go with the flow.
Also remember that Italians love a good debate so it's important to sort out your difference of opinion by responding with equal gusto. There’s no need to avoid oncoming conflict, simply raise your volume to meet that of your opponents and be prepared for regular interruptions.
5. Business hours
The Milanese work hard (9am - 6pm Monday to Friday), but they do maintain work-life balance, particularly when it comes to food; most Italians get an hour or two for lunch anytime between midday and 2pm. Try not to organise any meetings in August, as many businesses are closed and most Italians go on holiday.
image courtesy of Santeria
6. Where to work
If you are around town and looking to get some quick emailing accomplished during the day, pop into a trendy Tortona cafe like God Save the Food or Gogol & Company for free wifi and delicious light fare. A more stable meeting option is Open, a café, bookstore and co-working space located in the radical chic Porta Romana neighbourhood where you can rent a desk, ensuring that there will always be space for you.
For a more permanent, long-term office, a proper co-working space might just be the best option. Over the past few years, Milan has an outcropping of trendy co-working organisations such as Talent Garden Milano, Coworking Login or Santeria.
Additionally, feel free to connect to Open WiFi Milano, Milan’s free public Wi-Fi system available in city centre and within government buildings.