The Ivory Coast, also known as Cote d’Ivoire, is located in West Africa, along the gulf of Guinea. Despite years of political unrest, Ivory Coast, with a population of almost 23 million and a geography that ranges from coastal lagoons to forests to savannahs, is one of the powerhouse economies among African nations. The country is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, cocoa beans, and palm oil. Manufacturing is also a big economic contributor, with factories producing everything from automobiles to air conditioners. So, if you’re off to do business in Ivory Coast, what do you need to know to be successful, fit in, and not offend your hosts?
The official language of Ivory Coast is French. However, there are around 60 regional languages, and many people also speak English. If your hosts don’t speak English, it’s important to have an interpreter who speaks French.
Ivoirians place a lot of emphasis on hierarchy. Important things to remember include:
- If conducting business in French, don’t use the informal version of “you” in business (“tu”), unless you have a close personal relationship. Instead, use “vous”, the formal version of “you,” unless invited to do otherwise.
- Titles are also important. If addressing someone who is senior to you, whether in age or status, use “Monsieur” followed by the person’s title: “Monsieur, le directeur.” Alternatively, you can use “Monsieur” followed by the last name: “Monsieur Ouattara.”
- Managers are expected to dress the part. That means wearing a suit and, for men, a tie. Managers are also expected to be friendly and kind to their employees, but not overly familiar. In addition, Ivoirians are used to close supervision. If you prefer your employees to take the initiative, you’ll have to do some coaching to lead them in that direction.
- The handshake is the standard greeting. Women who know each other well may kiss three times, alternating cheeks. Eye contact is also important, but staring can be considered aggressive, so make sure to look away occasionally.
- Ivoirians expect their managers to be experts in their field. However, they also value wisdom, which means realizing that, no matter how much of an expert you are, you still have some things to learn. To gain respect, demonstrate your expertise, but don’t be a know-it-all.
- Start meetings with some small talk rather than jumping straight into business. Acceptable topics are family (especially children), sport or cultural events, and even the weather. Because of the country’s dependence on agriculture, weather is fundamental to the well-being of many Ivoirians. It’s acceptable to talk to mutual acquaintances to find out more about the person you’ll be meeting so that you can start building a relationship.
- Don’t, however, address the country’s political turmoil. If a colleague asks your opinion, be diplomatic, saying something like, “I don’t understand the situation well enough to have a firm opinion.”
- Be punctual. Your colleagues will expect it from you even if they don’t follow through themselves.
Business relationships in Ivory Coast depend very much on the exchange of favors. As you develop relationships with individual Ivoirians, they’ll do things to make life easier for you: inviting you to local festivals, making introductions with influential people, filling you in on the other people you’re going to work with, etc. In exchange, they’ll expect some favors in return – maybe giving them a raise or hiring some relatives.
It’s not hard to build strong business relationships in Ivory Coast. People are warm, friendly, and, in general, forgiving of unintentional mistakes. Just mind your manners and demonstrate that you’re open to learning regardless of your position, and you should do just fine.