When globalization meets national identities

Closing a business deal is as much about figures as it is about negotiation and behavioral skills. Maura Di Mauro has been researching and consulting with small and large firms in how to succeed with a global mindset.

If you walk down the main street of almost any modern city, you will see people everywhere wearing the same brands and using the same apps on their smartphone as everyone else. This cultural homogenization, mainly pushed by consumerism, is turning our habitat into almost indistinguishable “non-places” (as named by the French anthropologist Marc Augé) designed according to Western standards. However, the loss of local identity is only partial since cultural roots are still defining the “doing business” in different parts of the world. This is the origin of glocalization – to indicate that the growing importance of continental and global levels is occurring together with the increasing salience of local and regional levels.

To understand more about Italian business culture, we meet Maura Di Mauro, lecturer in Intercultural Business Management at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (in Milan and Piacenza) and expert intercultural trainer and consultant.

Maura explains that when we talk about a country's business culture, we refer to how business is done in that specific country or geographical area: a set of practices, behavioral norms, and rules of morality – often underlying, unspoken, and unwritten – guided by a system of shared values, beliefs, and assumptions. 

Maura outlines the key elements that define Italian business culture:

  • Presentation or introduction. Being presented or introduced in certain contexts by the right person – someone powerful and trustworthy – is worth more than many phone calls, emails, and self-introductions.
  • Relational credibility. Who you know, how many people you know, the authority and power of influence of the people you know, but also the power of exchange and reciprocal favors are relational elements that allow relationships of trust to be built. Relational credibility and trust are also built by showing respect for authority as well as relational bonds.
  • Timing. To obtain positive outcomes from negotiations, you must be patient with long and frequent meetings – even those outside typical working hours – and delays due to the redundant bureaucratic procedures.
  • Warm relational modes. Face-to-face meetings or phone calls are still preferred to keep professional relations even though emails and video-calls are more and more used. Italians like to get to know their clients and business partners around the table, during lunches or dinners, not on quick occasions, such as breakfasts (as is more typical in the United States of America) and during conferences.
  • Elegance and style. Look and appearance play an important role for Italians. Therefore, dress code choices, ways of welcoming and of being hospitable determine how one is perceived and judged by others. But corporate visual communication – logos, layout, images, merchandising, and so on – also need to show elegance and style. And last and but not least, the use of titles enables differences and conflicts to be resolved in a diplomatic way. 
Maura Di Mauro

Intercultural skills are relational competences that manifest themselves in a high degree of awareness of how our own and other people's cultures influence managerial and personal behaviors and the ability to adapt to and communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds. Often, the tendency to think “business is business ... and in the end we understand each other all over the world” prevails; believing that simply being able to speak Global English as a second language makes it possible to carry out one's role effectively at an international level. But that is not necessarily the case. 

According to Maura, the most difficult gaps or cultural differences to manage or adapt to are: 

  • “relationship orientation” (which prevails, for example, in Italy) versus “task orientation” (which prevails in Northern Europe) 
  • “high context communication style” (indirect and anecdotal, which prevails, for example, in Italy) versus “low-context communication style” (or direct and oriented to numbers and facts, which prevails in Northern Europe)
  • “polychronic” time (or circular, lived in a more flexible way, which prevails, for example, in Italy) versus the concept of “monochronic” time (or linear, planned, and used efficiently, which prevails in, for example, Northern Europe).

Maura points out that as firms internationalize they often underestimate intercultural skills as necessary soft skills. This is especially evident in small and medium firms, as they are made up of people who lack not only international experience but, above all, a global mindset. Paying attention to the business culture of the country we are targeting is vital as simple misunderstandings can be deal breakers. 

From the conversation with Maura, I learned the importance of preparing to be challenged, being curious and open-minded, continuing to learn about other languages and cultures, being flexible, and understanding and accepting – but not necessarily agreeing with – different ways of living.

Ph. provided by Maura Di Mauro