by Riccardo Perna, Lead Trainer & Business Developer, Cultural Confidence Europe

“Why should we pay for an intercultural training about working effectively with Italy? These two countries are so close … we know each other, we’re cousins, we do not need such training.” 
This is often what training managers of French enterprises think when it comes to organizing expatriations to Italy or when dealing with Italian subsidiaries. 
And yet …

I have always worked internationally, even when I lived in my home country of Italy I was working in the United States (at the U.S. Consulate General) and later I traveled to the United States, the Middle East and throughout Europe.

I could see for myself that there are different shades of color in terms of cultural distance, for example I’ve realized that in Saudi Arabia I felt much more out of place than in Holland or that in Nevada I felt very far from Europe. 
But how does a French feel like when he or she is in Italy or vice versa? People often say to me, “Italy? It is just around the corner! We always go there in the summer, the Italians are our neighbors!” Well, that’s exactly the problem.

For five years I lived in France while working abroad. I would visit customers all over the world during the week and spend my weekends in France, my adopted country. 
When I got tired of traveling I decided to stop and blend in for good.

So I took a job at a French company where I was the only foreigner among my French colleagues. 
”I have been living in France for 5 years now, I know this country, it will be much easier than working in the USA” I said to myself. 
I was wrong … 
Culture shock was quite heavy, especially because I did not expect it. 
Yes it’s true we are cousins, yes it’s true we know each other a little, yes it’s true we are two Latin countries (well …), but it is exactly this proximity that is deceiving … we are far from knowing each other as we should, in order to be able to work together without the misunderstandings and disagreements that different cultures generate.

When we work with a Russian or a Chinese, we are aware of our cultural differences and we are prepared for possible differences of perception, we are afraid to say things that can anger our counterpart and we go to great lengths to communicate clearly our objectives and intentions. 
Between French and Italians that rarely happens because of this false belief that we already detain the implicit knowledge and mutual understanding which allow us to avoid the pitfalls of communication between two individuals belonging to different cultures.

So we pay less attention, small misunderstandings ensue and accumulate, while leading to a deterioration of the professional relationship. Exchanges become increasingly difficult and squabbles arise.

On vacation this similarity between our countries can help us find a faster way of adapting to the country mores, but as far as business is concerned, it is a whole other ball game: Exchanges between colleagues of different nationalities often take place within the framework of projects managed by cross-functional teams, made virtual by the unified communications trend and its software for audio / video conferencing and data sharing.

Such interactions take place with filters that limit the perception of counterparts’ points of view and the ability to listen without jumping to conclusions and interpretations based solely on our own values.

Often when members of a global virtual team finally have the chance to meet in person, it’s too late because they have already worked together remotely over an extensive period of time and therefore have accumulated many misconceptions about their foreign colleague. 
During the meeting all they will do is to unconsciously defend these prejudices that reassure them in their need to be right, which is quite human. 
The context of corporate work amplifies the differences and even two countries very close as Italy and France can become two strangers to one another.

When delivering training, I always hear the same issues come up over and over again:

I never seem to get the information in a timely manner 

  • How can I improve my colleague’s performance when he does not report to me?
  • Italians are terrorized by hierarchy and do nothing without their leader’s approval
  • they have a tendency to let problems solve by themselves … and it works because we are forced to do without them
  • it is almost impossible to keep a deadline for Italians
  • Italians do not want to apply the process

So I realized that an intercultural training about working effectively with Italy is important indeed and it needs to be practical, useful for companies that have subsidiaries, suppliers or customers in Italy. 
Of course it’s important to pass the basics of cognitive psychology to understand how we operate in terms of understanding and interpreting the world around us, of course it is important to transfer social psychology concepts to understand how people interact with each other as members of different groups and of course it is also important to provide the essentials of Italian culture and its variables; but what corporations need are real scenarios, where participants get involved. 
Training should focus on case studies that allow us to analyze the specific needs and discuss the problems encountered daily by staff during exchanges over the phone or via email on issues related to their positions in the context of their corporate culture. 
We must provide tips that a Financial Control Manager, a Project Manager, a Business Developer can follow to improve their daily business interactions with their Italian counterpart, in this delicate ecosystem called Enterprise. 
So if we really want to be cousins, the first step is to realize that we have drifted apart and that we want to get closer again.