WORKING ABROAD / JUN. 03, 2014
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How to Master Business Etiquette in Colombia

Planning on doing business in Colombia? Taking the time to learn the unwritten rules – the country’s business etiquette – is an important step in making your trip successful.

Basic facts

  • The Republic of Colombia is in the northwestern region of South America.
  • The country has a population of over 46 million.
  • The official language is Spanish, and over 90% of the population is Roman Catholic.

Dress

Business dress varies widely by geography, with smaller cities and coastal areas adopting a casualness that matches the hot climate. Bigger cities like Bogota and Medellin have a more formal, European style of dress. Colombian businesspeople appreciate quality, so if you’re trying to impress them, wear a suit that’s well made and well cared for.

Formality

Colombian business culture is an interesting mix of casual and formal. Titles are important. If a business associate has a title, use it: Doctor, Professor, Ingeniero (Engineer), Abogado (Lawyer), etc. On the other hand, relationships are also very important, and you may be invited to address colleagues by their first names. If they do invite you to, or if they address you by first name, then you should follow suit to avoid offending them.

Greetings

Because of the value Colombians put on relationships, greetings are enthusiastic and sometimes lengthy. Expect firm handshakes, lots of eye contact, and many inquiries into your health and your enjoyment of your visit. When meeting a female colleague for the first time, offer a handshake. The next time you meet, however, don’t be surprised if she offers her right cheek for a kiss. This is common and will probably be expected as you get to know each other better.

Meetings

  • Meetings in Colombia should be scheduled well in advance – at least two weeks ahead of time. But don’t be surprised if the schedule changes, even at the last minute. It’s definitely a good idea to confirm the day before.
  • Give your business partners a heads-up on the topic of the meeting, but it’s not necessary to provide a detailed agenda ahead of time. If you send material ahead of time, understand that they may not read it.
  • Colombians tend to be relaxed about punctuality, so expect meetings to start a bit late. However, they do expect punctuality from non-Colombians, so try to be on time, and give them a call if you’re going to be late.
  • Allow for a good bit of small talk before beginning the meeting. Your Colombian hosts may be offended if you try to get down to business too quickly.
  • While price is often the determining factor in business deals, don’t bring it up too quickly. Talk about other aspects of the deal first.
  • Unlike American meetings, which tend to end rather abruptly once business is done, meetings in Colombia end with more small talk. Allow time for this custom, as leaving too quickly will be seen as rude.

Manners and customs

What’s seen as polite in one culture is often considered rude in another. Here are some tips for minding your manners in Colombia:

  • Don’t use hand gestures when talking. Some common American gestures – like beckoning someone with a finger, or holding up both index fingers to indicate length – are considered obscene or rude in Colombia.
  • Don’t yawn in public.
  • Don’t put your feet on furniture.
  • Have business cards printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other. When giving out your cards, offer them with the Spanish side up.
  • Don’t expect that your hosts will speak English. Many people do, but not all. If you don’t speak Spanish, arrange for an interpreter.

As long as you take the time to learn about and respect cultural differences, doing business in Colombia isn’t difficult. All you have to do is be on your best behavior (and make sure you know what that is!).

 

photo credit: freeimages via mogollon

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