WORKING ABROAD / APR. 08, 2014
version 6, draft 6

How to Conduct Business in Bolivia Using Proper Etiquette

The country of Bolivia is located in South America. Its neighbours include Peru, Chile, Argentina Paraguay and Brazil. They are a culture of warm people, and their nation recently went from being a republic to being a Social Unitarian State according to the most recent update of their Constitution.

The primary language spoken in Bolivia is Spanish, and most people over 15 years of age can read and write. Though education is valued, most people are unable to graduate from high school due to financial challenges. Bolivia is a developing country, and it especially lacks foreign investment in the areas of mining and hydrocarbons.

Getting to Know the Bolivian Business Culture
 
Bolivian families are very close knit and family life is central to the culture overall. So it’s not unusual for a business meeting to include discussion about family and close friends of the family. However, family is not generally present for a business meal. In addition, business transactions generally move at a much slower pace than what an American may be accustom to experiencing.

Bolivians prefer making purchases from people that they know and trust, so connections and recommendations from others that they know and trust are key to breaking into any market in Bolivia. Food is an item that is very central to the culture, and so business is generally going to be conducted around a meal at a restaurant. Appropriate attire includes a suit, though women are expected to wear a skirt or dress rather than pants.

If you are invited to a home for a business meal, it’s appropriate to ask if you are expected to bring your spouse and children. In this case, it’s important to let children know that reading, talking on the phone or texting at the table are considered rude. If your host has a family, the two of you will likely go and discuss business elsewhere while spouses and children enjoy one another’s company.

Business is Often Conducted Over a Business Dinner
 
When you are invited to a social event or to dinner, it’s considered rude to be on time. People generally show up 15 – 30 minutes later than the stated time of the event. However, if the meal is at a restaurant, you will want to get there earlier than the host. Making someone wait in this particular setting is viewed as having power over them, so it’s considered gracious to be on time to a restaurant and expect your host to be late. When you meet, a handshake is appropriate and good eye-contact leaves a beginning impression of trustworthiness.

The cultural norm is to decline eating until the host insists. Once you’re seated, none of the food should be eaten using your fingers. All food must be eaten with a fork and knife, and everything on your plate must be eaten. Leaving anything on your plate is considered rude. Complimenting a food item is a signal that you would like to have more. So if you don’t want more you’ll need to wait until your plate is cleared away to compliment the food.

Restaurants in Bolivia rarely have non-smoking sections, so you will encounter people smoking after their meal. And it’s considered rude to ask people not to. However, if you are a smoker, it’s considered polite to wait for your host to light up before you do it yourself. It’s also considered polite to offer others at your table a cigarette.

A Couple of Other Things that Bolivians Enjoy
 
If you choose to give a gift to your host, value is not what matters, it’s the thought. An item from your area of the country is generally appreciated. If it has your company logo on it, it needs to be modest. Appropriate items for a hostess can include flowers, wine, whiskey and quality chocolates.

While this is hardly an exhaustive list of etiquette tips, it does provide some basic information. Dining etiquette in Bolivia is rather important, especially in business, but good manners and being polite will go a long way.


Photo:  La Paz, Bolivia, Corentin Kopp, flickr.com

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