Latin America is quickly becoming the region to watch in terms of steady economic growth, and increasing market attractiveness. Many foreign businesses and investors are snapping up opportunities to access immense populations and bring innovation to the region.
But expanding isn’t just about understanding legal and technical requirements for forming a company; you must be attentive to cultural differences driving your new partners and customers.
As connections to the region are increasing, we offer guidance on some key cultural aspects to be aware of when doing business in Latin America.
1. Take care with names and titles
Compared to some English-speaking countries, Latin American workplaces are more status conscious. Take care in acknowledging someone’s title or role. People can often address people by their title in the workplace. Show your respect for people’s positions and level of authority.
In turn, expect to receive greetings of the same nature – this can be especially surprising for people accustomed to addressing others on first name basis in the workplace. Gauge receptiveness to that kind of interaction carefully; you may be disrespecting someone by bypassing formal acknowledgment of their standing in the company.
2. Hugs and air kisses are normal
If your traditional greeting is a handshake, you’ll need to adjust to a more tactile connection when meeting people. In business and social environments, it’s normal for men and women alike to greet with a hug and/or air kiss.
Failing to greet with warmth can be interpreted as standoffishness or disinterest. Being aware of the differences in the way people treat personal space in this manner is important to moving ahead on the right foot when meeting new people. The personal ‘bubble’ is less defined than in other countries, so be aware that backing away from someone who stands near could be considered rude.
3. Build relationships
In other business environments, compelling pitches, major investments, and comprehensive strategies win over peers and partners in the workplace. In Latin America, businesses must make relationship building their utmost priority.
Foreign businesspeople must be aware that business isn’t conducted in the same impersonal manner here in Latin America. Where they are used to focusing on deliverables, Latin businesses place a greater value on working relationships.
A client or business partner won’t sign with someone they don’t feel they can trust. Building rapport and establishing close ties with stakeholders and prospective investors shows you care about their opinion. Openness shows your willingness to align with their values and strategic direction.
Commercial growth in Latin America depends a lot on making connections. Foreign entrepreneurs will quickly learn that a physical presence in their new country makes a big difference to their success. Businesspeople accustomed to a ‘fly in, fly out’ model for setting up a company may struggle to penetrate their new market, if they don’t make an effort to be present.
4. Show warmth and expression
Personal boundaries aren’t as rigid in Latin American business culture as they are in much of the English-speaking world. Latin Americans are warm and friendly, including in work environments. This can be quite a change to Western compartmentalization of individuals’ work and personal lives. Be prepared to receive inquiries about your health, family, and other relationships. Opening up about who you are as a person enables quicker relationship-building. Build trust with your co-workers and business partners by sharing deeper conversation topics than the weather.
5. Business attire is formal
Dress formally for work in Latin America and for business meetings. ‘Smart casual’ won’t make the cut in many work situations. Looking the part shows that you’re committed to making a good impression and representing yourself and your business partners. Formal business attire also encourages the perception of authority; dressing too casually might lead your counterparts to believe you have no decision-making ability in your role.
Unless you’ve been told otherwise, expect to dress in professional, modern business attire. Men – make sure to put on a tie.
6. Different dynamics in meetings and negotiations
Business meetings often mix the personal with the professional in Latin America. Meetings may spill into overtime by up to an hour; small talk and casual conversation is important to keep things light and engaging. Launching straight into talking shop sends the wrong signals, and really makes ‘work’ of meetings. It’s not uncommon to meet over lunch for a couple of hours. Remember, warm working relationships sit at the core of business success in Latin America.
Negotiations won’t necessarily close quickly or stick to schedule. Latin Americans may approach things in a more indirect way than some Western business climates. There’s an expectation that negotiations should be done face-to-face, instead of over the phone. This means that you’ll have to factor in a longer stay in the country as opposed to ducking in for a few nights.
Deadlines aren’t rigid in meetings or negotiations, so budget your time accordingly and be patient.
7. Time is more fluid
Time is more fluid in this region as opposed to others. In some English-speaking countries, if you’re right on time to a meeting, you’re almost late.
In Latin America, however, time takes a different priority in business. People can commonly turn up to meetings around 30 minutes after the suggested start time. Some observers note that this expectation is slightly different for foreign businesspeople; you may not get way with showing up late to a meeting, if you’re the one pitching the idea or courting a new client.
Prepare to take time in negotiating deals with your Latin American counterparts. As mentioned above, if you’re pursuing a new working relationship or partnership, it’s normal to meet over a meal and take your time getting to know your counterparts and clients.
8. Speak the lingo
Overcoming language barriers is another big hurdle foreign companies face when expanding into the country. The lack of prevalence of English makes integration difficult. It’s difficult to find bilingually-skilled workers in certain professions in some Latin American countries.
Coming prepared with proficiency in Spanish and/or Portuguese shows a dedication to integrate into the country and an awareness of Latin American culture.
We help bridge the gap
When operating in new Latin American countries, having a trusted local partner will support your growth and commercial success through in-depth knowledge of technical and cultural expectations.
At Biz Latin Hub, we offer a range of back-office services designed to help you understand the local market and to navigate its complexities, ensuring a successful international expansion.
To find out more about how we can help, email [email protected] and we’ll get back to you with a personalized strategy unique to your business and your Latin American expansion goals.