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Published on Jun 25, 2013 in Latin America, News

Latin American Business Etiquette

Etiquette in many parts of the world is foreign to Americans. We haven’t had the long cultural history of Asia, Europe, or Latin American in interacting with various cultures, and thereby understanding the business etiquette prevalent there. Now, with global business dealings being more the norm rather than the exception, Americans are finding themselves at a disadvantage when conducting business in these countries as their etiquette and cultural norms are unfamiliar to them.

My partner Dave Dodge and I started working with countries in Latin America approximately 15 years ago. When we started, we actually expected some business similarities with Europe and possibly the United States. However, what we found instead was that Latin America has a uniqueness in business etiquette.  Below is a list of some of the most common points of business etiquette which we learned during our travels around Latin America. Understanding these practices will help you to better interact with your business counterpart in Latin America.

shutterstock_23318308_crop380w_xlargePunctuality: Latin American countries, as a whole, are lax on punctuality. They don’t watch the clock and even consider being late by 30 minutes to be acceptable. I’ve been at many meetings which have started promptly as scheduled, mainly at law and accounting firms, where I happened to show up at the appointed hour. However, if I was late for any of these meetings they would have still greeted me in the same friendly manner as before and would consider a slight tardiness to be perfectly acceptable.

Hand Gestures: Many hand gestures, which we might consider normal, may be considered offensive in Latin America. For example, putting your hands on your hips is considered a challenge in Argentina. Putting your hands in your pocket, just as in Germany, is considered rude in Mexico. Raising your fist to head level is a sign of Communism in Chile. Making an “OK” sign with your thumb and forefinger is considered offensive in Brazil. Pointing with your index finger, rather than your whole hand, is generally considered rude.

Address those you’re speaking with correctly: Americans, by and large, are informal. We like to address people by their first name. However, in Latin America, you need an invitation from the party you’re speaking to for such familiarity. You should therefore only use your business associates first name when you’re invited to do so by him. Until then, “Mr.,” or the language equivalent, is how someone should first be addressed. Also, Latin American handshakes aren’t usually as firm as those in the United States and Europe, particularly if you’re in Guatemala or El Salvador. A hug is also common among friends, except in Costa Rica. And a cheek-kiss is usually common between men and women or among women.

Midday Meal: Most Latin Americans tend to make their midday meal their main meal of the day. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect to have a large business dinner in the evening. Rather, the evening meal is considered more social. Business, when it is discussed at the dining room table, is often left for the end of the meal when you’re having coffee or desert.

Personal Space: Latin Americans tend to stand much closer to each other than Americans. Subsequently, we may view this as an encroachment on our personal space and back off. However, it’s part of their culture to stand closer to each other than we do. If you back off they’re likely to step closer and try and close the distance.

Taking your client to a restaurant: When taking your client to a restaurant, and you wish to pick up the check, you’ll have to ask the waiter for it. In most countries in Latin America it’s generally considered rude to bring a check without you first requesting it. However, in Latin America the invitee normally does not pay the check and doing so may be an insult to your host. Also, in Chile, it’s good etiquette to pour the wine with your right hand and to hold a wine glass by the stem. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t leave right away after finishing dinner. It’s considered rude and implies that you were only at the restaurant for the food. Instead, stay and have a casual conversation after dinner. It’s considered good etiquette.

Unlike Germany, it’s acceptable to eat many foods in Latin America with your fingers.  These include tacos, churros, and the like. If you try and eat these with a fork and knife you may be perceived as being snobbish. Also, if you have to go to the bathroom, do it before the meal. Excusing yourself to go to the bathroom during a meal is frowned upon and is considered to be rude.

I’m from America: Don’t say you’re from America or use phrases which only have the word America in them if you’re referring to the United States. Instead, say or use the term United States. To Latin Americans, America is a continent which includes more than the United States. Subsequently, they feel that everyone born on the continent are Americans. When we call ourselves Americans, versus North Americans, for example, they feel it’s egotistical.

Chit-Chat: Unlike some European countries, chit-chat is acceptable in business meetings as both sides try and get to know each other. This helps establish rapport. However, getting to know one another prior to a business meeting is more popular among older Latin Americans. They generally place a greater emphasis on trust and loyalty than younger members of their society. The younger generation are less concerned about the social aspect of business and are generally focused on the transaction itself.

Some don’ts: Don’t talk about the drug trade when you’re in Colombia. Don’t ever refer to someone as an “Indian” in Ecuador unless they consider themselves as such. Also in Ecuador, don’t try and dress in their traditional attire as they may feel you’re trying to mock them. This also applies to Ecuadorians living in the city. Only natives dress in such attire. Don’t discuss differences between the U.S. and Mexico or racial or ethnic issues in Mexico. Don’t mention the Shining Path guerilla movement when in Peru. Don’t, or do, give someone in Brazil a gift (such as a jersey) with the number 24 on it as that number is strongly associated with homosexuality. Don’t forget to offer a cigarette to someone in Chile if they’re with you while you’re smoking. If you do, they’re likely to chide you for this neglect by saying: Did you learn to smoke in jail?

Attire: Latin Americans tend to dress well and expect others to do the same. Shorts on adult males is pretty much the exception, rather than the rule, except when worn in recreational areas such as beaches, pools, and parks. When attending a business meeting you almost can’t go wrong by wearing formal attire – a suit and tie. Even if the other side doesn’t wear a tie, which they most likely will, wearing a tie is seen as both a sign of professionalism and a sign of respect for the other party.

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