Sri Lanka is a beautiful and fascinating country full of different cultures, customs, religions and languages. All of these factors mean that the country has developed its own very distinct business etiquette. Some of these rules can seem quite alien to foreigner business people, however, as long as you follow the basic steps below you shouldn’t run into any problems.
It is extremely important to remember that Sri Lanka is made up of many different ethnicities, religions, cultures and languages. Sinhalese(73.8%), Sri Lankan Moors(7.2%), Indian Tamils(4.6%) and Sri Lankan Tamils(10.5%). In fact, it is only recently that the long running civil war with the Tamil independence terrorist group known as the Tamil Tigers ended.
Sri Lanka’s two main religions, Buddhism and Hinduism have had a big effect on society. As both religions are hierarchical in nature, especially Hinduism, the country’s business etiquette has also evolved to be extremely hierarchical. When conducting business it is important to remember this and respect seniority. Due to the importance placed on religion it is also quite possible that your counterparts may seek divine intervention when making business decisions.
The most widely spoken language in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese followed by Tamil. Sri Lankans place a huge amount of importance on saving face. As such it is important that you do not embarrass or criticize your counterparts. Sri Lankans are extremely non-confrontational and you often have to read between the lines to work out exactly what they mean.
Sri Lankans place a huge amount of importance on relationships within business and they are usually unwilling to do business with people that they do not have a personal relationship with. Your first business meeting will be more about them getting to know you than actually making any business decisions. While this can be frustrating for western business people, it is important not to try and rush decisions as this will be taken as an insult.
Due to the hierarchical nature of the society, all the major decisions are made by senior management. However, the only way to get to these decision makers is by forging a good relationship with the lower level employees in the initial meetings.
Greeting people in Sri Lanka can be quite complicated due to the different ethnic groups, however, foreigners are not required to be aware of such nuances. For business, handshakes are the most common form of greeting. Many women are still uncomfortable with physical contact with any male outside of their immediate family, so it is best just to shake hands with members of your own gender. Generally speaking it is best to follow your counterparts lead when deciding how to greet someone.
Titles are also extremely important in Sri Lanka and if someone has a professional title it is important that you use it. If they don’t have a professional title, then it is polite to use their honorific title such as Sir or Madam. It is rude to address someone using their first name until you are invited to do so.
As it is a rather formal business culture, the dress code is also quite conservative. During an initial meeting it is best for moth men and women to wear dark business suits. It is important that women do not show too much skin.
Just like in many other Asian countries, Sri Lankans treat Business cards with respect. Business cards should be both presented and received with two hands. It is important that you study business cards taking note of their titles and not just put them in your back pocket. Make sure to include any titles on your business card so that they can understand your status within the company. While translating one side of your card into Sinhalese or Tamil may be seen as a nice gesture it is not a requirement.
Gift giving is not expected during initial business meetings. However, if you receive a gift then it is essential that you reciprocate. It is important that you only give certain gifts. Giving alcohol is unwise unless you are certain that your host drinks. Pork and leather products are also unwise choices as this can offend Muslims and Hindus. Flowers are a bad choice as they are associated with mourning.
The tips above can seem strange to foreigners but if you follow them you will find that your business trips goes a lot smoother.