How to work efficiently with Italians?
May 19, 2016 9:41 PM   Subscribe

I work as a voice UI designer for a US tech company. I've recently started a project for a client in Italy and have just spent several frustrating hours on the phone, first with our team in Italy, and then at the kickoff with the customer.

I speak pretty fluent Italian from having studied it for years but I have never actually worked with Italians, so I was unprepared for quite the lack of focus I encountered on these calls. Everyone was very well prepared in terms of knowing the business and the project requirements, but no schedule could be adhered to with the amount of discussion that occurred, and the minute design detail that everyone dove into at a meeting meant to be high-level. Extremely rare edge cases were discussed as if they were equally or more important than the main flow. Also: I am the only designer, all the others were developers, project managers, sales engineers, and the business.

How does one rein in this apparent craziness and get work done?


If I join a conference call from the US with the Italian side sitting in a room together in Milan, how do I interrupt the others who are all talking over each other?

How do I ensure a 45-minute call doesn't take three hours?

How do I control the constant derails and bring the focus back to the 80-20 rule?

As a woman, how do I project authority to ensure I am taken seriously?
posted by Dragonness to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As a designer, this sounds exactly like every design review meeting I've ever been in, nationality irrelevant. I don't think there's really much to be done about it. Get your voice in there and make yourself heard. Don't be shy. But also, you just have to kind of let the meeting go the way it will. Take note of their feedback, incorporate the parts that make sense and throw away the rest of it.
posted by bleep at 10:27 PM on May 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

Just to be clear, this was not a design review, merely the kickoff to the project (preceded by an internal touchpoint). We were supposed to discuss technical details and go over the design requirements. Instead of only covering requirements the group then went into actual design and figuring out how to handle extremely unlikely events.
posted by Dragonness at 10:48 PM on May 19, 2016

Oh I see, sorry for misunderstanding. In these cases I have found success with the phrase "We are not going to design this right now. We're talking about requirements first." It seems to wake people up.
posted by bleep at 10:50 PM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't know if there are cultural factors at play here or not, but as a project manager, I've seen meetings go sideways when it was all Americans. One thing that I've found really helps is to have a detailed agenda: 9:00 Topic 1, 9:15 Topic 2, etc. Send it out, and make it the first slide people see when the meeting starts. Then, when people are counting angels on the head of a pin, you can say, "We're out of time for topic 1, can we sidebar this?" Then you recap the discussion and any action items in a few words, and go "OK, about topic 2..."
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 10:51 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been on many calls/in many meetings with people from a range of Mediterranian countries. My impression is that there are cultural elements around enjoyment of lively discussions and around length of said discussions. It is also my experience, working with people from all around the world, that time and clockwatching are viewed very differently in various countries.

And I have been on calls that were supposed to be for one 1hr with a bunch of Italian and Spanish colleagues and the call was at 5pm CET and it did not finish until almost 8pm. This was on a Friday night so you'd have thought my colleagues would like to close out the call and start the weekend as well but not so much.

The best you can do is - allow more time. Don't schedule anything else back to back. And actively try to restore focus. A lot of that comes down to just daring to interrupt the group discussion. And you may have to make a couple of attempts and perhaps speak more loudly than you normally would in a meeting because you're on the phone and the disucssion in the room is loud. But you'd have to do that in any lively discussion. It is my experience that in most professional settings people will give you space to talk if you demand said space.

You could also try making it clear that you have a hard cut-off point certainly for the internal calls. But that may not work either. On the above call I was sitting at the airport in Rome waiting for my delayed flight so I had the joy to sit through all of it. But my much more senior colleague was heading somewhere else, his flight wasn't delayed and he had to drop off when he had to board. He had communicated this at the beginning and it did not curtail things in any way.

If these calls involve people from your organisation is there anybody you work more closely with who you could perhaps recruit as an ally? It may help to have two people trying to restore focus. But alone, on the phone, unless you are the recognised person in charge/at the top, you'll struggle.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:33 PM on May 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

Totally agree with koahiatamadl. There are huge cultural elements at play here. Rather than railing against it and trying to force your Italian team and the Italian client to work the way YOU prefer (which will lead to frustration and misery), I'd suggest that you somehow learn to work with this style it or at least tolerate it. If you really need to interrupt or feel you want to project authority, just shout. Use polite, mannerly language, but raise your voice and yell. Someone will try and talk over you. Talk louder.

Source: English speaking northern European that lived in Italy for five years.
posted by bimbam at 1:03 AM on May 20, 2016 [11 favorites]

Are there any videoconferencing facilities available for you to use? If your face is on a big tv screen in Italy it will be easier for you to interject and participate.
posted by crazycanuck at 2:23 AM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I hope you're all using Tu and not Voi/Lei: if you're not get on that, it'll let you be more confident. Just liberally use "ti interrompo un attimo per ricordarti che..." and drag the discussion back to the original topic.

To be fair, though, it's less cultural and more company culture. I'm Italian and live in the US: I regularly have (skype) meetings with both US and Italian teams and this situation is pretty much universal when there isn't a strong "moderator" in a group call. Make yourself the moderator if there isn't an official team leader and politely remind them to get back on topic if they're there and wandering too.
posted by lydhre at 3:20 AM on May 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

I haven't worked effectively with Italians, but I have LIVED effectively with Italians, and please do feel free to yell and to interrupt. Both are not considered rude.

Source: 30 years of Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings, New Years eating 6+ course meals over the course of 2-3 hours. Lots of yelling! Lots of gestures! Lots of "AAAHhhhh!" (arm waves). The best is when someone shouts a zinger and the other 30 people around the table(s) go, "Ehhh-OooooH!"
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:23 AM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Regarding both your team and your client, don't assume that these meetings are as off-base as you seem. An "edge case" someone brings up on a call maybe is more important than you think. Remember that the 80-20 rule has another critical manifestation: 20% of the problems take 80% of the time available for problem solving.

Regarding you client: the client is always right. The more you let them joke, tell stories about their golf round last weekend, or hold forth on things you think are obscure or irrelevant, the smarter they think YOU are ... and the smarter (at least in subtle ways) you actually are becoming. Just embrace it.

Your your team: conduct your meetings in English. (Continental) European and Asian business people are usually very good at code shifting between local meeting/conference call culture and Anglo-American meeting / conference call culture, and language is an excellent cue for that. Lubricate the move to English-language meetings by putting a non-Italian speaking US colleague on the calls. To project authority in meetings like this it really helps to HAVE authority. Make agenda items specifically about YOUR decisions with their role being explicitly to advise you on your decisions. People with real authority can say very little, and quietly at that, and still have their desires be everyone's focus.
posted by MattD at 6:14 AM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I suspect you're going to have to enlarge your idea of "efficiency." Relationship-building and testing edge cases are likely to give everyone more investment and confidence in the final project, so they may not be wastes of time.

Can you talk with your Italian team and ask if the last meeting was typical? They might have good feedback to help you differentiate between cultural issues (company culture or Italian culture) vs. clients being unusually meandering. But tending to relationships rather than sticking to an agenda is still likely going to be a higher priority than you may be used to.
posted by lazuli at 7:04 AM on May 20, 2016 [6 favorites]

I meant to add: Every Italian I've ever met has loved testing edge cases, in pretty much any context, so you might just want to learn to roll with that a bit more. I always linked it to the completely Byzantine bureaucracy prevalent in the country, where what a law or regulation says and what a law or regulation actually means in practice are often wildly different things. (I don't know if it's still true, but when I was there, Italian parliament passed something like five times as many laws annually as the US (back when US Congress actually did pass laws!) and repealed twice as many; Italians tended to live in state in which written rules may or may not still be in effect and so are generally considered maaaaaaybe guidelines, but only if they're helpful in any particular situation.) I hadn't considered Americans particularly rule-bound until living in Italy, when I realized that assuming rules are straightforward and apply in most situations is a fairly American trait.
posted by lazuli at 7:12 AM on May 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Cultural issues aside, rethink the meeting. You had (plural): developers, project managers, sales engineers? Have you strategized with just the project managers?
posted by Good Brain at 11:21 AM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Very helpful answers, thank you so much. I've taken something away from each of them but have only marked 'best' those that are the most applicable to my situation.

The client has requested that meetings be conducted in Italian and there is no video conferencing available. I appreciate the input on edge cases. What I heard on the calls makes much more sense in that context.

I also now think their love of discussion is kinda cute, especially after you've pointed out they prioritize it over their personal time (on a Friday evening).
posted by Dragonness at 8:44 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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