Adjusting to Italian Business Practices

By: Rick Zullo

For an American in Italy, adjusting to the norms of Italian business and commerce can be somewhat of a challenge. You really need to downshift by a couple of gears and stop trying to impose your former work ethic on your current job situation. Not to say that Italians don’t work hard. They do, but they go about their workday at a different pace than what an American would come to expect.

In the U.S., employees are encouraged to be pro-active, self-starters, or at least try to look busy. Italians don’t appear to be burdened by such concepts. Don’t get me wrong, some actual work does manage to interrupt the constant string of coffee and cigarette breaks. But the project at hand is considered a mere annoyance, an afterthought, to the real task of discussing soccer or comparing family recipes for lasagna.

When working for a larger company or international corporation in Italy, you can occasionally observe the unwanted intrusion of an American-style business philosophy. These companies even try to inject a fair amount of American vocabulary into the workplace, which can sound very strange to the Italian employee. Terms such “staff meeting,” “manager,” “productivity,” “competiveness,” and “showing up to work on time,” have now managed to find their way into the corporate lexicon. Nonetheless, the actual meaning of these terms still tends to get lost in translation.

More frustrating still is dealing with government workers who often regard your presence at the same level as they would a gnat or a persistent rash. You may get angry with this attitude and be tempted to take it out on the postal employee, for example, who is talking on her cellphone behind the glass. However, this will do you absolutely no good. She has a very secure job and has no qualms about telling you precisely where you can put that package you wanted to send. Congratulations; now you can go back and take a new number. Or better yet, just go to another post office.

For small businesses, the workday isn’t quite as cruel. Even if you put in a solid 2 or 3 hours of work in the morning, you still have your “pausa” to look forward to. “The Pause,” is the time of day in Italy when all of the local businesses shut down and the workers go home for their three hour lunch break. I suppose it is the equivalent to the Spanish “siesta.” I don’t know where, when, or why this tradition started, but what I do know is that it can be very frustrating to the uninitiated American expat. We’re used to 24 hour access to everything. We naively expect things to function efficiently and in a timely manner. The world is supposed to cater to our every need or whim. When doing business in Italy, you can just forget about all of that. Let me explain it further…

In theory, business hours in Italy should be from 9:30 to 1:00, followed by a three hour stoppage. Then everything resumes again in the afternoon from 4:00 until 7:30. What’s more, most businesses have “un giorno di riposo,” or an extra half-day that they take off in the middle of the week. To make things even more confusing, this day is different from town to town and can also vary depending on the type of business in question.

This is why you can never take anything for granted when planning your daily schedule. Often I will leave my apartment with an optimistic list of five things that I would like to accomplish that day. If I get two of those items crossed off of my list, I consider it a very successful outing. But if you happen to have one important task that you absolutely must get done, the only reasonable strategy is to devote an entire day to it. I’m not joking. Show up at the place of business at 9:30 and be prepared to make at least one return trip plus two or three side trips. They’ll tell you that you need a special stamp from the tobacco shop, then a signature from the Questura, a blessing from the Pope, a sample of your blood, and your first-born male child as collateral. Inevitably, you’ll get it all together just around 12:55. Then you’ll have to wait three hours for the pausa before you can go back to your original destination. See what I mean?

Thankfully, the one thing you can truly count on in Italy is that you can always find an open bar, restaurant, or pizzeria nearby. Pick a shady table in a quiet square. Order a panino and a glass of wine and just take a deep breath. Look around. Or close your eyes and listen to sounds of daily life. As the buzz of the wine reaches your brain, you will gradually begin to understand how and why this “pausa” thing came into being. Maybe you’ll even admit to yourself that it isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Now, you’re getting the hang of it. Benvenuti in Italia!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingRick Zullo is an American expat living in Italy. Blog description: Help and Advice for Expats in Rome, with an added focus on Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Italians.
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