Any foreigner living in an international city like Florence for an extended period of time will inevitably experience cultural clashes here and there. When dietary habits or matters of style and taste are the sources of confusion, it’s easy to laugh off your occasional cultural clumsiness and move on with your day. But in the more high-stakes circumstances of work and enterprise, culture-based blunders can cost you opportunities and professional contacts.
Our international crew at The Florentine does a great deal of internal cross-checking. We’ll often turn to each other to clarify whether the average American reader would recognize this or that term unique to the United Kingdom, or whether a sprinkling of American slang might make sense to our Twitter followers in Australia. There’s also no shortage of commentary from the Italian side of the room when it comes to putting forth our best belle figure. After one such intervention, I’ll never again ask someone who calls our office to hold for just un attimino (‘one moment,’ rendered cutesy and informal by the suffix). We all occasionally have to act as unofficial ambassadors of our respective countries, speaking on behalf of the friends and neighbors with whom we grew up.
Despite the many lessons to be learned within the office, I still wanted input from an expert on interacting—and negotiating—interculturally.
I turned to Lorenzo Parrini, regional representative of the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy, a partner of Deloitte, the world’s largest professional services network. As part of Parrini’s challenging cross-cultural role, he regularly mediates between Italian and American businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Eager to hear how my fellow Americans fare in their formal dealings with Italians—at least in his experience—I asked him to share his thoughts on the key differences that each culture should keep in mind when dealing with the other in business settings. I particularly wanted his perspective on a recent Business Insider piece making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook.
The article, ‘These Diagrams Reveal How to Negotiate with People around the World,’ looks at curious communication patterns across cultures, but the diagrams seemed to me to be fancy reconstructions of old-hat bullet points with which we’re all familiar. What should one expect when negotiating any deal in a meeting among Italians and Anglophones? Italians are described almost as musicians, using the distinct rhythm of la bella lingua to achieve personal expression and eloquence above all else. Americans, on the other hand, always want to get the business taken care of as soon as possible, laying all of their cards on the table within the first few minutes of any given meeting. The underlying theme for Brits? Remaining calm, removed and understated and always throwing in a healthy dose of their trademark humor.
When I wondered out loud if this was all a gross oversimplification, Parrini confirmed that the stereotypes may be reductive, but they’re not far from real-life experience. ‘Having to work with people from all over,’ he explained, ‘I’m always reflecting on the world we live in and noting certain differences.’ He generally modifies his own approach a bit when meeting with Americans, citing the need to stay ‘structured and to stick to the point, without talking in circles.’ Parrini also noted the sharp distinction he often sees between communication patterns of representatives from major international Italian brands and single entrepreneurs, explaining the importance of switching gears not just in different cultural contexts, but in diverse types of business settings. A meeting with a small business owner, who may be ‘in love with himself and what he does,’ requires a much more flexible approach, allowing the conversation to meander.
‘Typically in that sort of situation, the entrepreneur tends not to get to the point right away, approaching things very differently from how a more corporate professional would,’ Parrini explained. But this doesn’t mean that their way with words renders their business plans unclear: ‘It’s just a difference in how diverse types of meetings are managed,’ Parrini added.
Keeping that key point in mind, Parrini explained that though Italians rely heavily on intuition and improvisation in business, this has nonetheless produced many great successes. A super-structured, objective-focused American would do well, then, to keep an open mind when dealing with family-owned enterprises that may not have built their businesses the way a stereotypical star-spangled whippersnapper would have.
The TF team is interested in continuing the conversation, hearing more about how our expat and Italian readers who work in international environments, large or small, have adapted. For those who have done so for a long time, is modifying your mode of communication something you still do consciously or have your own approaches fundamentally changed? Would you stick out like a sore thumb if you had to return to a ‘monocultural’ work environment? Keep the conversation going at facebook.com/tfnews or share your experiences via email: email@example.com.