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Don’t get straight to the point
In Latin America, a personal relationship needs to be established before you can talk business.

At business meetings in Latin America, patience and small-talk are vital. You can also score points by being smartly dressed – and bringing marzipan.

Photos: aldomurillo/iStockphoto, Hamburg Süd (2)

At first glance, it would seem reasonable to assume that business meetings with companies in Latin America would be broadly similar to meetings with partners in Southern Europe. But appearances are deceptive. “As is often the case, the devil is in the detail,” says Rodrigo Pacheco, a corporate communications specialist at shipping company Hamburg Süd. Pacheco is German-­Chilean­ and for almost twenty years has been working for the shipping company on its Europe-South America business. He has extensive first-hand experience of the countries in the region. He warns against getting to the point too quickly, as Germans like to do. “In Latin America, you need to first establish a personal and then a business relationship. Without trust nothing gets done. It’s absolutely counterproductive to just walk in the door and get straight down to business,” says Pacheco.

In order to build trust, he recommends extensive small talk. Family, sports (especially football), the weather – all are fair game. “The people in the region are proud of their country and their culture, even if they like to complain about the political situation. Acknowledging this pride and paying them the appropriate respect is essential for successful business,” explains Pacheco. He therefore advises, for example, to emphasise the beauty of the respective country, the quality of its food and the hospitality there, and in return not to touch sensitive issues such as politics or dictatorships. Likewise it’s a good idea to delete the word “no” from your vocabulary. Locals often avoid confrontation in a noncommittal way by saying that they want to reconsider.

In contrast to the countries in Southern Europe, one shouldn’t assume that one’s business partners in Latin America will speak fluent English. The use of an interpreter is often a good idea. “Conversely, I have often noticed that in Latin America it’s really appreciated if the guest can manage a few words in Spanish or Portuguese. Even if they are not perfect, this can prove to be a door opener or icebreaker for building up trust,” says Pacheco. If the initial contact is successful, business meetings or even an invitation to a dinner may follow. The clocks tick differently depending on the situation. If a fifteen minute delay in a business meeting or a business dinner in a restaurant is considered normal and appropriate, this is not the case for a private invitation. Sometimes people arrive about an hour after the fixed appointment. “Unless the hosts are serving a culinary delight that requires a precise time of arrival,” Pacheco says. In general, he says, it is best to meet with other local partners in advance and arrive together with them.

Patience is money

Although it is considerably hotter in Latin America than in Northern Europe, for men a suit and tie are not just good manners, but practically a must. For women, dresses or skirts in combination with heels dominate. “Good and above all well-ironed clothes are right at the top of the list of priorities. Great importance is also attached to branded products,” says Pacheco. This also applies to titles when meeting and greeting. Here, despite the usual use of the first name, the business partner is addressed in Spanish with Don or Doña, and in Portuguese with Señor or Señora. If one knows, for example from a business card, that one’s interlocutor has an academic title, it should be used.

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“In Latin America, the word ‘no’ is best removed from your vocabulary.”

­Rodrigo Pacheco, specialist in corporate communications at Hamburg Süd

Hamburg Süd trucks, one with a refrigerated and one with a dry container, in front of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile. The shipping company has 65 offices in Latin America and operates more than twenty liner services to the region.

Regardless of how business may develop afterwards, one thing is clear from the outset: anyone negotiating in Latin America must have a lot of patience. Here it’s not time that is money, but patience. Apart from the “no” already mentioned, there are two main taboos: creating time pressure and raising your voice. Acting quickly gives the impression that you want to hide something, and raising your voice is perceived as unprofessional and a sign of lack of respect. “It is curious, in public, Southern Europeans and Latin Americans often appear loud to us, for example when they shout something across the room. But in a business context, it is considered rude and a loss of face if you react excessively loudly,” explains Pacheco.

Yes to chocolate, No to licorice

When it comes to gifts, Pacheco experience differs from the standard recommendations. Flowers, for example, are often cited as a no-no, but Pacheco has always found them to be well received. “Football shirts from Germany and Europe are also popular gifts. But you should find out in advance which club your business partner – or his or her children – supports. A shirt from the wrong club could be a bit of a clanger.” Pacheco has also noticed that sweets are particularly popular. “Chocolate from Germany, Switzerland or Belgium is highly appreciated. Colourfully wrapped pieces of marzipan are also very popular, and can then be handed out in the office”. But there is one German speciality that Pacheco warns against. “Somehow licorice never seems to agree with local taste buds.” (bre)

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