Understanding business etiquette in Colombia is crucial to your commercial activities running smoothly in one of the most dynamic and promising economies in Latin America. Local laws, corporate procedures, language conventions, and cultural differences can pose a challenge for foreign executives looking to enter the Colombian market, so it pays to get clued up on local business customs.
So if you are considering starting a business in Colombia or expanding into Latin America’s fourth-largest economy by GDP, the following seven tips on business etiquette in Colombia should come in handy.
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1. Business etiquette in Colombia requires you to comply with local regulations
Without exception, all multinational companies and foreign businesses must comply with Colombian regulations. This is essential to avoid fines and penalties from local authorities that can compromise civil and criminal liability. Understanding corporate laws and business etiquette in Colombia provides you with the necessary tools to face any legal problem or inconvenience that may arise.
Certain aspects of the Colombian judicial system can be tricky to navigate, such as when and how you can appeal decisions, or sudden changes in legislation that are approved by the Congress or municipal authorities.
For those unfamiliar with Colombian laws and regulations, it is highly recommended that you partner up with a locally based expert to guide you along your commercial journey.
2. Dress accordingly
While this might seem obvious, keep in mind that weather affects business etiquette in Colombia. Some cities, such as the capital Bogota, are relatively cold with regular rain, while many other cities are hot all year round, with sometimes oppressive humidity on the coasts.
In colder cities, standard ‘business formal’ is expected in most professional services sectors. In more temperate cities, like Medellin or Bucaramanga, where it is hot during the day and cooler at night, the business dress code can vary, though ‘business formal’ is likely to be expected when meeting with foreign executives. If you do dress for the heat, keep in mind that the city can chill down in the evening, so you may want to take another layer if you’ll be networking into the evening.
But in hotter cities, especially those on the coast with tropical climates such as Barranquilla, Buenaventura, or Cartagena, ‘business casual’ or even ‘smart casual’ is expected. If you have never been to a meeting in 85% humidity while wearing full business attire, we recommend avoiding it if you can. Formal pants and cool shirts are often the appropriate clothing for this type of climate.
3. Be aware of business formalities
Colombians are generally outgoing and welcoming who go to great effort to make you feel at home. However, in almost all business-related contexts, formalities remain commonplace. Hierarchical relationships are generally clearly defined and are often expressed through titles and honorifics. So while it is common to refer to clients and associates as “Señor” (Mr) or “Señora” (Mrs/Ms), you should not be surprised if someone of particularly high standing is referred to as “doctor” as a mark of respect, regardless of whether they have Ph.D.
4. Learn some Spanish
Colombians are increasingly aware of the need to speak good English in commercial environments. As such, it is highly likely that any client or associate you meet will be able — and eager — to speak English.
In a business context, most people usually speak English well enough to have at least a basic conversation, while many will speak a very high level. Nevertheless, it is wise to try to temper your talking speed, especially if you have a regional accent that may be harder for the person to understand.
However, to demonstrate your interest in the local culture and any partnership you are seeking to develop, it is highly recommended to learn some Spanish basics. Most Colombians you meet for business will say “nice to meet you,” but that doesn’t have to stop you impressing them with the response “mucho gusto.”
5. Be punctual
Colombians are often depicted as easy-going people with a flexible attitude to timekeeping. While in social settings that can often be true, it is increasingly uncommon in professional environments, especially those with regular dealings with foreign companies.
Punctuality is an essential aspect of business etiquette in Colombia if you want to make a good impression, especially if you are from a country perceived to be very punctual, as many English-speaking countries are.
6. Understand the culture
Colombia offers a very rich and diverse culture. Its carnivals, varied regional cuisine, historical heritage, and biodiversity, among a host of other factors, attract millions of people from all over the world each year.
As a courtesy, local businesses that host foreign businesspeople will often invite them on a tour of the main historical sites of the city they are visiting, as well as take them to famous or typical restaurants. Therefore, it may be a good idea to do some preliminary research on the place you want to visit and the activities you would be keen to do. Showing a genuine interest in Colombia will get you a long way in both social and professional settings.
7. Avoid common cultural stereotypes
Aspects of Colombian society and its recent history have become popularised by TV shows and movies in recent years, which often reinforce certain negative stereotypes associated with the country. While foreign visitors often use these topics to break the ice in conversations, it is worth taking into account that Colombians are generally proud of their country and frustrated by pervasive negative stereotypes about it. Avoid uncomfortable situations with potential business partners by steering of such topics, unless you can speak about them in an informed manner.
Find your local guide in Colombia at Biz Latin Hub
Understanding business etiquette in Colombia can be key to the long-term success of your business. Engage a local trusted expert who can offer you professional commercial representation and guide you in all of your local dealings to guarantee success.
Get in touch with us today to find out more about business etiquette in Latin America and receive personalized assistance.
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