Communicating across Borders Part II: Southern Europe

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Communicating across Borders Part II: Southern Europe

01/08/2018 Europe World 0

Nobody speaks European

© Eleonore Breukel  –

Juliano, an Italian blue jeans manufacturer enters the trade fair in the International Fashion center in Barcelona together with Klaus, his German distributor for Northwest Europe. Juliano comments, “What a wonderful show, full of bright colors, loud music and lively conversations between the stand holders and their clients.” Klaus thinks, “How can I do business in this place? The music is too loud and people are speaking with raised voices and gesticulating as if they were having arguments.” Could it be that Juliano feels like a fish takes to water in these surroundings, eager to do business, and that Klaus feels overwhelmed?

 The Southern Region of the European Union

In this article we will take you on a cultural journey through the southern region of the European Union. This region is also referred to as the Mediterranean. The area includes the countries of Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Malta.The languages of these countries are based on the ancient Latin language. Although French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Maltese may be very different when you listen to them, once you learn one of these languages you will easily understand a fair bit of the other languages.

 Group Oriented Cultures

Juliano comes from southern Italy, which is primarily a group-oriented culture. Most probably he was brought up close to many family members and friends. He is used to living and working in an environment where many different activities and conversations happen at the same time.

In Southern Europe people tend to identify themselves as part of a group, the most important one often being the extended family. Family units function as a tight social framework in which each family member has duties and responsibilities. The interests of the individual are subject to the interests of the group or extended family. Extended family members meet frequently and solve problems within the group and often assume responsibility for caring for the weak and the needy rather than hiring a professional to do so. A cousin may turn to his uncle for work when he is unemployed. There are still many family businesses in Southern Europe.Most cultures in the world are more or less group-oriented cultures except for those in Northwest Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, where life is generally centered on the goals of the individual.

 Relationship-oriented versus Task-oriented

People from group-oriented cultures are used to building relationships based on trust before they do business with a new company or person. The Italian businessman will invest in the relationship with a new English or Danish client by inviting him/her to lunch or dinner. Even during this short period of time together some trust can be built.

The Englishman and the German might experience this as a waste of time. In Northwest Europe, trust is established by the quality of product one has to offer, the compliance with contracts made together and the financial figures of the turnover of the past few years.

 Dress and Colors

There are a number of things that Southern European countries have in common. They are all situated around the Mediterranean and Atlantic Sea. Therefore, they are considered vacation countries for the people in the North of the European Union. During the months of July and August masses of English, Germans, Belgians, Dutch and Scandinavians fly or drive to the south of Europe to enjoy the warm climate and the sea. Usually people spend a fair amount of money during vacation time on summer clothing, souvenirs, food and fun.

Mediterranean’s spend a lot of time outdoors and in general, they like to go out in groups. How fashionably one is dressed is important and the appreciation for form and fashion dates back to ancient times. One makes a good impression by wearing fashionable clothes suitable for the occasion. A compliment to your business partner on his good taste in dressing will be appreciated. This is in contrast to the people of Northwest Europe where complimenting someone on his appearance could be seen as superficial and unwanted flattery.

 Hierarchy and Status

Mediterranean people are sensitive to hierarchy and social status. They will openly show respect to important people and defer to the wisdom of an elderly person, in contrast to Northern Europe. In the many family businesses in the region the boss may be perceived as a father figure who sees to it that all are provided for. It is often easier to get to know several people in different levels of the organization in a considerably short time. In large companies the President is seen as a distant leader. There are clear hierarchical differences between people of the several levels in an organization. Make sure that the person you do business with in the organization has the power to communicate with the levels above him as well as the levels below him.

It is advisable to get to know many people in an organization. This is good for networking when a person leaves the organization or when you need a support base during difficult issues. Networks are always important, but especially so in Southern European countries. Being introduced by an important person to a prospect or client is by far the best way to enter a business relationship.

 Verbal and Written Agreements

When it comes to business we see that the French may be more hardcore negotiators than the Italians, the Spanish and the Portuguese. Verbal agreements will do only if there is enough trust between the business partners. The French however will want to see all prices on paper before making any decisions. From your side it is wise to always work with clear written agreements.

 Indirect Communication

You may notice that the way people communicate is very visual. Often people move their entire body when they speak to stress the importance of their words. Hands and arms are used to illustrate or emphasize the words and there is a tendency to speak loudly. Interrupting a conversation is allowed and sometimes expected. It shows that you are interested in the conversation.

Mediterranean people tend to use considerably more words to express themselves than people from Northwest Europe do. They will take special care to prevent loss of face. The Italians, Spanish and Portuguese may tend to joke more than people from Northwest Europe and might expect light conversation from you to establish rapport. The French however can get into lengthy conversations about serious subjects from the beginning. In southern France one tends to be more open and informal than the French from Paris and the North of the country.

In communication you will see that Italians and Spanish are rather informal after the first introduction. They will stand close to you and may frequently touch your arm or shoulder. The French usually remain formal throughout the conversation.


Make a vibrant presentation, preferably with visuals. Use bright colors and lively images. You create trust and credibility when you mention that your company has a long history in your country or in the region.

Quality and form are often more important than boring images about figures. You can support your presentation with the necessary figures on paper, which you can distribute before the presentation.

If the presentation is held in English, which is a foreign language, frequently summarize and ask questions to make sure that the content is understood. Ask your audience to interrupt you when they do not understand.

Find out prior to your presentation the status of the people presents. Not everyone attending your presentation will have the authority to speak up during the presentation. If you would like to hear their opinion check with them after the meeting or the presentation.


  • Invest in building relationships and spend some quality time with important clients.
  • Pay compliments to dress, food and wine from the area.
  • Prepare yourself for light conversation. Think of some actual subjects to talk about and avoid topics such as religion and politics.
  • Make sure your contact is able to communicate to different levels in the organization.
  • Bring your client or business partner a small present.
  • Bright colors do well in the Mediterranean.
  • Adapt your verbal and written presentation to the country you are in.

© Breukel,E   Nobody speaks European part II, CBI News March/April 2005.Adapted 2018.

*CBI, the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, contributes to sustainable and inclusive economic development in developing countries through the expansion of exports from these countries to Europe. Annually, CBI supports more than 800 entrepreneurs to become successful exporters on the European market through our export coaching projects. Moreover, CBI publishes around 450 market studies every year.