While it would be a mistake to lump together all Latin American nations, they do tend to share certain values and attitudes toward business that are not as common in the United States. For instance, Latin Americans have a different perception of time than their U.S. counterparts. It's not the mañana attitude that we associate with their cultures. Rather, punctuality is not necessarily viewed as a virtue. Latin cultures believe that life is meant to be enjoyed, not hurried. If someone is late for an appointment, the courteous response is to look the other way. The one exception to this custom may be Chile; the Chileans are noted for their discipline, order, and punctuality.
Having said that, punctuality in business is appreciated — within limits. Generally, 15 to 30 minutes late is deemed acceptable. Like people almost everywhere, Latin Americans tend to underestimate driving time. Socially, however, time is considered to be very flexible, and arriving an hour or so late to a party usually will not offend the hosts. In fact, if you arrive right on time you might embarrass them because most likely they will not be ready.
Courtesy is important in Latin American culture. Mexicans are especially polite, seeming at times to compete with one another to prove who can be the most courteous. This takes the form of grandiloquent gestures of magnanimity, such as splendid gifts and elaborate invitations. They are equally expressive when on the receiving end of gifts or invitations.
Protocol varies from country to country. Guatemalans, Chileans, and Colombians from Bogotá tend to be more formal. Titles are important and should be used when addressing them, at least initially. Later on, informality becomes the preferred mode. On the other hand, Venezuelans and most societies near the Caribbean often are very informal.
Like most people around the world, Latin Americans prefer to get to know people before doing business with them. U.S. businesspeople are likely to want to cut a deal at the very first meeting. Latin Americans distrust haste when it comes to reaching agreements. To earn the trust of a Latin American, you must take the time to build a relationship first. The best way to do that is to show respect for them and their customs.
Because business meetings tend to be harmonious, direct confrontation is unusual. This doesn't mean that there won't be disagreement. In fact, Americans are often surprised by the passion with which Latin Americans express their views. While we are seldom emotional when it comes to discussing business issues, Latin Americans often believe not showing emotion will bring their sincerity into question.
What to Eat?
If you love food, Latin America is the place for you. Mexico alone has nearly 11 regional cuisines, and they're not all spicy. In fact, most Latin American meals are not spicy. Wherever you travel in this region, be sure to try the local food; it is often beautifully prepared and well-seasoned. I would warn against buying food from street vendors (for health reasons), but hotels, restaurants, and even private homes will delight your palate with fabulous dishes.
A Brief Tour
Argentina, especially Buenos Aires, is cosmopolitan with a strong European influence. The Argentines say that the Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, and the Peruvians from the Incas, but that they descended from ships because most of the population is of European extraction. Argentine businesspeople are known for their self-assurance, acumen, sophistication, and biting wit.
Brazil has a well-established industrial base and a very capable business class. Brazilians are a mixture of Portuguese, African, and Native races. The two major cities are Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The people from São Paulo are called Paulistas and are considered the business elite of the country. The people from Rio call themselves Cariocas; they say that the Paulistas are in charge of business and work, whereas the Cariocas are in charge of fun. Rio's beachfront is one of the most beautiful in the world, and its carnivals are world famous.
Mexican businesspeople are knowledgeable and increasingly sophisticated, but you will not find the same sense of urgency that characterizes American business. How do you cope with that? Start earlier, plan carefully, and communicate frequently. You also need to be flexible, because Mexican solutions often involve navigating around local authorities.
One final recommendation: Don't underestimate the negotiating ability of Latin American businesspeople. They're clever, subtle, and patient. Prepare carefully, take as much time as needed to reach an agreement, and put it in writing. Then you'll need to be alert to a typical post-agreement negotiating strategy. Called nibbling, it takes the form of additional requests after an agreement has been reached. It usually starts with, “Oh, just one more little thing if you don't mind.” We tend to feel generous once we've reached an agreement. The problem is that they keep coming, and pretty soon you've given away more than you may want.
So, welcome to Latin America! Don't expect to find all the same things you left at home; rather, enjoy what's there — and you'll love it.
Michael Wynne, president of International Management Consulting Associates, is an expert international marketer specializing in helping businesses grow and profit beyond borders. Visit www.FreeProfitTips.com; e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org; or call him at (630) 420-2605.