Excerpted from the Italy Career Guide
Italy celebrated its 150th birthday in 2011. Compared with many other countries, this makes it relatively young. There are significant regional differences reflected in cuisine, the numerous dialects spoken throughout the country and in the culture itself. Northern Italy is more prosperous and industrialized, while southern Italy (known as the Mezzogiorno) remains largely agricultural, with an unemployment rate almost double that of the north. It is important to keep regional differences in mind when interacting with Italians.
Italy has 21 regions, five of which are autonomous (the two main islands of Sicily [Sicilia] and Sardinia [Sardegna], Valle d’Aosta, Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia), and which have specific history and culture. There are also two independent states within the borders of Italy, Vatican City and the Republic of San Marino. Minority groups in Italy include German-speakers in the Bolzano province, French-speakers in Valle D’Aosta and Slovenes near Trieste in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Immigration in particular from Eastern European and North African countries has been significant over the last decade.
As early as the 8th century BC, Greek traders had established settlements on the isle of Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula, an area known as Magna Graecia, where they flourished until the 3rd century BC. By the 7th century BC, a little-known people called the Etruscans dominated the center of the peninsula. They were eventually displaced by the Latins (Romans), and their culture and language disappeared by the 2nd century AD. Eventually, the entire Italian peninsula and its neighboring islands were united under the Roman Empire, and by the 1st century AD, the Romans ruled most of the Mediterranean.
Italians tend to be gregarious, expressive and animated. While they speak loudly and interruptions are to be expected, they tend also to be quite eloquent. There is rarely a moment of silence in the course of a conversation; Italians are rather uncomfortable with silence. Appropriate topics of conversation in the Italian workplace include Italian history, architecture, art and culture, sports (especially football/soccer), food and wine, and current events. It is advisable to avoid religion, politics and the Mafia, which is considered a negative stereotype of Italy. Personal questions on income are also inappropriate. On the other hand, Italians are quite keen to speak about their families.
If You Want to Act Like a Local...
- If offering flowers as a gift, do not give roses (too personal) or chrysanthemums (funeral flowers).
- On birthdays, it is quite common in Italy for the celebrant to buy dinner or drinks. If invited to someone’s birthday party or celebration dinner, the host will likely be paying. In these cases, a nice gift (but never money) is expected. On the other hand, if going out with friends or colleagues for lunch or dinner, the total cost is normally divided equally between all the participants.
- If eating out for breakfast in a coffee shop (called Bar), pastry (cornetto or croissant) and espresso/cappuccino (swallowed in one go), are eaten standing up.
- Cappuccino is a morning drink and generally not served after noon.
Italians place a great deal of importance on social status and etiquette. When meeting new people, Italians assess the age and social standing of the person, and then adjust their greeting accordingly.
When verbally addressing a business contact, formality is preferred. An informal approach, including using the first name, can be used only after the counterpart’s suggestion. Titles should be observed and used frequently. Often, when addressing someone they respect or their supervisor, Italians will use the person’s title instead of name. Top executives and subordinates may not use first names when addressing each other and may use the formal form of speech (Lei). The informal form of address is tu. Titles of authority are also used for those holding college or graduate degrees: dottore (men) and dottoressa (women); lawyers: avvocato (men) and avvocatessa (women); professors: professore (men) and professoressa (women); and other similar professional titles. For those without titles, men, married women and single women should be addressed as Signore, Signora and Signorina, respectively, followed by the surname. Note that Signorina is used only to address young, unmarried women.
Management is strongly hierarchical in Italian businesses. Most decisions are made either at the top of the chain of command or at least by middle management with ratification by the upper tier. Decision making can be a slow, drawn-out exercise because of the need to always go higher up the chain.
Although Italians have a reputation for being late and leisurely, many are in fact very punctual and expect others to be so as well. That being said, flexibility with deadlines and appointment times is appreciated. Meetings may not begin on time and often go past the stated end time; projects may begin late and not be completed on time. In short, being punctual but expecting delays is a good strategy.
Women in the Workplace
Although women are prevalent in the workplace and treated with respect by Italian men, they have not attained equal recognition or authority in business settings. There are few women in senior management, let alone in the highest levels of business and government. While progress is being made, it is quite slow compared with that of other countries.
This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the complete Italy Guide.