Italian Assignments – Guidelines for Navigating Cultural Differences
University of South Florida
December 4, 2017
Todd Benschneider, Gabriel Bussell, Ali Dogan Sivritepe, Pam Sundown
Table of Contents
- Employee Responsibility and Preparing for Success
- Bureaucratic Tasks and Tips
- Anticipated Economic Adjustments
- Schooling for Children
- Medical Care
- General Business Etiquette
- Effective Negotiation Styles
- Dress Code and Personal Fashion
- Dining Etiquette
Please understand that your assignment is first and foremost to serve as a corporate diplomat for your employer: Interglobal. One thing that is certain, you should expect that the progress toward your business objective to take much longer than you anticipate, so please adjust the timelines of your assignment objectives to accept these differences, a good rule of the thumb is U.S. estimated timeline multiplied by 2.5 (20). It will also benefit you to resign to the fact that controlling your Italian business partners sense of urgency or work ethic will usually damage relationships. With that stated, your first task will be to adapt your pace to the Italian partner’s timeline.
In addition, it is your duty to understand the Italian’s “Ugly American Stereotype”, and avoid reinforcing any negative preconceptions such as: Americans are rude, self-righteous and condescending towards their Italian hosts. It is imperative to understand that over 30% of American expats abandon their first foreign assignment in the first twelve months, the high failure rate is easily reduced by intensive culture preparation like the training course you have been provided (20).
Another obstacle in cultural acclimation is the preparation of your family for the assignment, which is why they will also be participating in preparatory conditioning for the cultural adventure the family is about to embark upon. Success on a foreign assignment will prove your resourcefulness and adaptability and be an important stepping stone in the advancement of your areas of responsibility here at Interglobal.
BUREAUCRATIC REQUIREMENTS FOR YOUR EXPAT ASSIGNMENT
For Italian work assignments that last longer than three months, US citizens are required to obtain a “National Work Visa”. Most companies handle the application on your behalf; however, the approval process usually takes six to nine months; therefore, it is imperative that you follow the status of the application and understand your company’s policy. Family visas are comparatively simple to acquire after your National Visa has been granted, your family will only require a written request and valid passport to join you (12).
Depending on the living arrangements provided by your employer, you will probably need also to apply for a residency permit to rent or purchase a home. With a residency permit, you will need to apply for tax number, this number, much like a social security number will be required for many routine family needs such as obtaining insurance or healthcare (12).
In addition, most expats learn the hard way that their U.S. mobile plan does not transfer to Italy and that roaming charges can rack up a frightening bill unless you modify your plan to an international package prior to your arrival. For business purposes it is standard to have a prepaid Italian SIM card installed on your mobile phone which can convert your current smartphone to a local Italian phone number. When you want to switch back to your American number, you just swap back to the original SIM. A popular technology in Italy has become dual SIM mobile phones that allow you to carry two independent phone lines on a single phone, one as your personal number and the other as your work number (19).
ANTICIPATED ECONOMIC ADJUSTMENTS
The cost of living in Italy is not significantly higher than in the US, but the regionally adjusted income to cost of living equates to around 50% higher depending on region. The first observations many expats realize is are larger pay gaps between junior and mid-level managers, this may be a factor of the Hofstede Power Distance Index of 50 compared to the US score at 40 (9). The Hofstede-insights.com website is a valuable tool to use in understanding international cultural differences. For example, Italy pays its young workers the lowest entry level wages when compared to its western European neighbors, you can expect to find students from with excellent academic credentials hiring in at a 2016 average starting pay that equates to $32,500. In contrast nearby Switzerland offers its new graduates an average starting salary equal of $99,300. In the United States you are accustomed to working with young college graduates that typically hire in at $50,200. Fortunately for our prospective mid-career expats you will learn that Italy uses the money saved on young employee salaries to compensate older workers. While still at 11th of 15 western European countries Italy pays its mid-level supervisors the equivalent of $84,100 annually, which climbs quickly as you climb in the corporate ranks (14). These salary differences are partly cultural and due to the fact that Italy has limited resources that impact its current potential GDP. On the following page are detailed comparisons of each region’s major city with cost of living compared to Tampa. You will notice surprisingly inexpensive rents but low local purchasing power due to lower average salaries and higher tax rates (13).
Milan’s Local Salary Purchasing Power is 50% lower than Tampa’s
Rome Local Salary Purchasing Power 49% Lower than Tampa
Naples’s Local Salary Purchasing Power is 59% lower than Tampa’s
SCHOOLING FOR CHILDREN
Most expat families send their children to international schools to alleviate the challenges of mastering academic fluency in a second language. The benefit of attending an accredited international school, is that these institutions provide a standardized coursework that transfers into other international locations and can increase chances of being accepted into the most selective international universities (11).
In Italy, schooling is broken into three cycles plus kindergarten, which begins with three years of optional kindergarten through age six, then a mandatory elementary school through age 11, during this cycle Italian education system requires all students to learn two foreign languages, the first is typically English which is introduced while children are seven years old, a second foreign language is required at age eleven (7).
Following the elementary school cycle, Italian children enter middle school for ages eleven through fourteen. At fifteen they begin the third cycle that we call high school which they are required to take an admission test to qualify for the academic courses to prepare them for the universities. If their academic skills lag their peers, they will typically be assigned to a vocational training school rather than a high school (11).
You should plan on relying on public transportation for the first several months, since you are legally required to carry an International Driving Permit to rent a car. In addition, expect to pay about 60% more for gasoline, however on the bright side, Italians also drive on the right side of the road and most major highways have no speed limits (7).
Public buses and trains are the most affordable and reliable mode of transportation in major cities, many expats use the iBus line. Fortunately, Uber has become very popular in Italy’s major cities in recent years and is often the most affordable mode of transport in many areas, however the Uber network is not well developed in smaller towns (7). Unlike Uber, many taxi drivers will frequently take advantage of foreigners by insisting on payment much higher than the meter reading (7).
While many of you will be taking advantage of housing provided by the company, some may choose to explore alternative housing, especially those who find a work from home culture. In Milan and Rome, many prime apartments are being bought up by investors and utilized as AirBNB rentals, which is a type of personal Home to rental Hotel room application that works on a similar principal as Uber as does for personal transportation, this trend is creating a shortage of small apartments with a view of the city (12); however, it is an excellent way to rent for a short while in different parts of the city prior to signing rental contracts.
Italian employers are required to contribute to the government health insurance of their workers. Unemployed and retired are covered by the government plan which ensures that as a nation, Italians are well cared for. In comparison to other overseas assignments, Italy provides some of the best healthcare for its residents, including expats. Expats may want to consider private add-on insurance to expedite the timeliness of their medical care visits, especially on assignments where they may not qualify for the host company insurance provisions. As a general rule of thumb, medical attention is given to all regardless of insurance coverage, add on insurance speeds the process and covers most items not covered by the government health insurance. Consult with other expats in your region for their recommendations on medical centers that are familiar with the expat health insurance requirements (12).
GENERAL BUSINESS ETIQUETTE
As a rule, Italians have difficulty trusting strangers and most business relationships require and introduction by a third party from the host culture. It is generally considered unprofessional to approach executive level business partners and introduce yourself to begin pitching them your ideas, instead you would normally be introduced to them by someone of similar rank that vouches for your expertise and trustworthiness and begins the conversation for you mentioning your expertise on solutions (10).
While English is often the preferred second language of Italian international firms, you should understand that most professionals expect you learn Italian to be accepted into the inner fold of office politics. The Italians are very proud of their heritage, language and culture, and have a hard time building relationship with foreign business associates that are not interested in learning their language. Remarkably, even if you have a mastery of the standard Italian dialect taught to American students, you should expect to be puzzled by the countless number of local dialects that distinguish one region from another (8).
Overcoming the differences in negotiation styles between the American approach that you might take for granted and the decision-making processes of your Italian counterparts has the potential to make or break your success on the assignment. In the first year on your Italian assignment you will wise to negotiate using a host country assistant since mistakes made during this period can cause long term damage to your relationships. You can expect to have a difficult time gaining access to decision makers above your own rank, in the Italian business world, the decision makers are rarely in the meeting where the negotiations take place, because of this you can expect that no hard decisions are normally made during the meeting. You are simply presenting your side and responding to their objections, the junior associates at the meeting will relay the information to the decision makers and who may mull over the proposal for months before responding that they are interested (22).
In Italy, decision makers are expecting to deal with someone their own level of seniority, so if you are under 35, it will be wise to reconsider representing yourself in the negotiations, the Italians can feel insulted that they are not dealing with your boss, even if you are the sole decision maker. With that in mind, if the Italians send older representatives to the negotiating table, be certain to address them first, last and with a great deal of deference, even if you are unsure that they are the true decision makers.
Italian corporate culture typically requires that a respected host country executive introduce the interested parties, during that introduction day, avoid talking business unless a senior member of their team specifically brings up business matters. Expect several weeks to pass and several visits before the prospects bring up business. It is at these critical points that you be patient and respect their business traditions, this is an area where many Italians expect you to turn into “an ugly American” and try to rush them into viewing you as a trusted business partner. Your Italian partners feel that high pressure tactics are an indicator that they are being tricked into an agreement that is not in their best interest, by instead drawing out the agreement they are comforted by the fact that you are comfortable with them looking at your proposal at every angle. Once they see that you have their best interests at hand when proposing what should appear to be a “win-win” collaboration of resources in your first few agreements your future partnerships will progress with less effort (22).
Italians will avoid being direct and often ignore your demands for an immediate acceptance or refusal of terms. It will be rare to hear host country partners use the word “No” during negotiations; instead, they will change the focus to a different part of the agreement or skirt away from business talks and ask about your family. Patience will become a daily mantra during your first year in Italy, without patience your business objectives will often fail to win the cooperation needed from your Italian counterparts. Compare the graphics below to gain a deeper understanding of the difference in the negotiating process (21).
DRESS CODE AND PERSONAL FASHION
Dress codes vary by region and climate; however, you can expect that your Italian coworkers invest a larger portion of their income in their clothing and spend a larger amount of time evaluating their wide range of potential outfits for the day at hand. At first glance you might be misled by the lower number of white shirt and tie dress codes than in the United States; however, if you look closely you may find that knit crew neck shirt is anything but a t-shirt, instead it could be a meticulously pressed merino wool knit that might cost several hundred dollars, the type of attire that Americans would save only for weekend social events. For example, few American workers with salaries under $100,000 even consider purchasing a $500 pair of shoes or a $2000 handbag; however, it is common in Rome and Milan to notice that some junior level managers own several pairs of $500 designer shoes and a couple of $2000 bags, and what astounds most Americans is that they wear such expensive fashions to work on a daily basis. Forget about the American concept of “work clothes” being the ones that you are not concerned about getting soiled or torn. With that in mind, Italian business people take great care of their clothing, most items are professionally laundered after each day’s wear with the exception of wool suits which are usually hand steamed at home before returning to the closet. As for sneakers or sneaker inspired casual shoes, they are not often seen inside a business office, so when in doubt plan to limit your sneakers to the gym or the ballfield and the same can also be said of typical American jersey cloth sweat suits.
For women, take note that colored nails are uncommon, and makeup is light or often non-existent inside the workplace and is generally considered tacky and the hallmark of a stereotypical tourist. Instead of makeup, women invest their primping time into the preparation of their hair to achieve the best possible shape and shine. You will often be surprised as well to learn that even junior level females commonly spend $100 per week to have their hair care maintained by the countless number of highly respected salons across the major cities, in Milan stylists at the most elegant salons make over $100,000 year (19).
While women’s business attire might initially seem sexier than you might find in an American business environment, you will notice that it comes from Italian clothes to be form fitting rather than expose skin, so be cautious about the low-cut blouse or high hemmed skirt that is considered acceptable in American offices. You will later gain an overall perspective on where each culture places its discretionary income, when those Milan coworkers are shocked to learn that you had two $40,000 cars in your garage back in the United States at your pay level.
Italians take food very seriously, and take their time enjoying the food experience. When at a restaurant, it is not uncommon to spend several hours enjoying the company of those you came with. Expect to be at a restaurant for a minimum of 1-2 hours, possibly more, especially on Sundays. Each region, and sometimes even individual cities, have their own specialty dishes, so the best way to immerse yourself in the local culture is to ask your server about the specialties. A full Italian meal typically consists of an appetizer, a first course, and a second course with a side dish.
Most Italians drink mineral water and/or wine with meals and you can expect to see a charge on your bill even for tap water. Coffee is not served until after the meal. Italians usually eat late meals, where lunch will not start until approximately 1pm, and dinner not until 8pm. Nearly all shops and restaurants are closed for three to four hours between lunch and dinner; however, in large tourist areas, one may find restaurants open all afternoon. Because Italians spend significantly more time at restaurants than Americans, the server will almost never bring the bill to the table until asked to do so. In addition, table etiquette is similar to most countries in terms of utensil use. However, forearms (not elbows) should rest on the table, not on the lap, which is common in American culture.
Large tips are frowned upon in Italy; most wait staff are viewed as distinguished professionals and receive a respectable living wage salary. In most regions a “service fee” or table fee is included in on the bill which represents a built-in tip, in these situations it would be uncommon to leave an additional tip. Therefore, the most valued tip is enthusiastic praise to the chef and server. Ask your business associates for their recommendations on tipping practices in the area that you will be working, they will appreciate your concern for adapting your behavior to the local practices and be more willing laugh off any inappropriate mistakes made along the way.
Italians like Americans have corporate restrictions on receiving gifts from vendors, so gifts are not expected from business associates, but are common when invited to a home for a dinner party. Typical gifts are inexpensive and often representative of your home country such as American liquors or chocolate, when in doubt flowers are suitable for any occasion, however avoid chrysanthemums which are used for funerals and never given an even number of flowers as it is considered bad luck.
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