Everyone from the Chancellor of the Exchequer downwards seems very keen for Brits to increase trade and business links with South America, but childhood memories of Paddington and TV footage of the Rio Carnival aside, most British people don’t have a great deal of experience of South America. We don’t have the historical and cultural links with Brazil or Peru that we do with India or the United States, for example, so it can be hard to be sure you’re getting the etiquette right for meetings and building personal relationships. With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to doing business in South America.
Perhaps the most important thing to realise about doing business in Latin America is the importance placed on personal relationships. This is often wheeled out as a truism wherever you’re looking to do business, but in South America if you don’t invest the time in chatting about people’s kids, their elderly maiden aunt, their new car and every other little thing about daily life... you really won’t get very far. And we’re not just talking about a quick question at the start of a phone call or a meeting. Even if you speak to someone every week, you should expect to add a good 5-10 minutes to the start of a phone-call, and in a large meeting, what we might call ‘small talk’ can expand to fill a good half-hour or even more.
This is even true for formal meetings, and ideas of a prepared agenda can often go out of the window. By all means have a rough outline in your head of subjects you need to discuss, but if you are expecting to issue a formal agenda and have everyone stick to it, then you may need to think again. If you are having a lunch or dinner meeting, then things are likely to be even more informal, and the ‘chat’ element correspondingly larger. Just try not to see this as a negative. It’s all about building trust, and you’ll find South Americans place a great deal of emphasis on their history and connections with you – a few years down the line, when a problem crops up, you’ll be glad you put in the time, quite apart from the fact that socialising with South Americans is usually going to be great fun anyway!
In terms of meeting over meals, expect a lunch meeting to go on for at least a couple of hours, particularly in Peru or Brazil. In Argentina lunch is often taken at home so dinner is the more usual time for a business meeting, but be prepared: Argentinians think it incredibly uncultured to eat dinner before about 8pm, and think nothing of starting an evening meal at 11 or 12pm.
Whether you’re going out for dinner together or meeting at a place of work, appearance can be very important. Even in Brazil, where generally dress is very informal, business attire can be quite conservative. By all means think about lightweight, natural fabrics (although increasingly you’ll find offices air-conditioned) but pay attention to creases, belts and ties, and above all make sure your shoes are shined! Countries like Peru and Ecuador can be even more conservative in terms of dress, especially if you are working away from the capitals in cities like Cusco or Cuenca.
If you’re invited to a meal at someone’s home or to a social engagement like a wedding then you really must accept the invitation. In Brazil in particular, companies often hire out boxes at major football matches in Rio or at events like the Rio Carnival and use these to entertain their families and clients. Turning it down might not be seen as unforgivably rude (although it’s not the best way to impress your host) but it means you would miss out on an invaluable opportunity to meet people’s families and get to know them in a more informal setting. Gifts in South America don’t have the same importance that they do in, say, Asia, but something small for children on these occasions will be remembered for years by both them and their parents.
Finally, after you return home, be prepared for emails to go unanswered and even unacknowledged for several days – as has to be explained to every novice doing business in South America: it’s not you; it’s just a slightly different timescale. Don’t forget that throughout Spanish-speaking South America, being on time is referred to as la hora inglesa or ‘English time’: they might not always be punctual, but they’ll be surprised if you’re not!
Dan Clarke works for Real Peru Holidays – the UK specialists in tailor-made travel to Peru and holidays in Brazil and Argentina.
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