A Brief Introduction to Latin American business cultures

Published by Ngoc Tran on

Latin American business culture

Figure  1. Latin American business cultures (made by the author)

With the growing trend of international business, it’s not so difficult to find yourself working with people from other cultures and backgrounds. To be well-prepared and adaptable to multiple business cultures, especially those that are quite opposite to yours, is a continuous learning process. Therefore, I have researched over distinct business cultures such as Northern Europe (Dutch, UK), Northern America (American), Asia (Japanese), etc. This time I open my horizon by ‘digitally’ traveling to Latin American countries and learning this new culture. Will you join me?

#1: Communication

Latin American countries’ communication styles are in the middle of low and high-context communication, meaning that they tend to either communicate implicitly or directly. Brazilians are likely to communicate clearer and more explicitly than Peruvians despite both speaking the Romance languages (Latin languages or Neo-Latin languages). According to E. Meyer (2014), this can be explained by looking back at history. The author concluded that the more diverse a country or culture is, the more explicitly they communicate. Common daily topics for small talks are family, vacations, sports, living, etc. The Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile) is fond of talking about arts, literature, or history.

Regarding giving feedback, Latin American business cultures slightly lean into indirect negative feedback. They often start with positive feedback followed by negative feedback expressed politely. Besides, Latino americans are quite emotionally expressive and confrontation-avoidant. People speak passionately, so sometimes it looks like their tone is loud as if they are fighting or disagreeing. But in fact, they mean nothing negative. Another example is that Brazilians sometimes interrupt a lot during a conversation, which is simply a sign of enthusiasm, not bad manners. Despite their emotional expression, they are sensitive and shy away from open disagreement.

#2: Collaboration

Latin American cultures are generally collective, so people favour the development of teamwork. Like Asian business culture, Latin Americans, for example, Mexicans, value social relationships that are built on trust and personal communication. Therefore, a good tip is not to push business talk or perform a hard-sell approach. In addition, your colleagues from Latin Amerika tend to feel motivated when collaborating with reliable colleagues and sharing mutual responsibilities – this is also a way for people to reduce their individual risk during decision-making. Another important remark is to save face for each other. It’s known to be extremely crucial in Chile, as well as other Latin American countries. Therefore, try not to create open disagreement, but rather discuss the disagreement implicitly or privately.

#3: Power distance

The level of inequality distance in Latin American business cultures is quite high due to the fact it has existed for years and people generally accept it. This aspect is among the biggest cultural gaps between Latin American and Northern American/Northern European business cultures. A clear example is to first address people formally (as ‘Señor/Señora’), compared with the informality by addressing the first name of a senior in Northern Europe. The formality is also applied to email correspondence.

Besides, the high level of inequality distance has an influence on the decision-making process where senior management solely makes the decision without consulting with lower-level employees. It’s therefore better to know who is in charge and who will be the final decision maker during the cooperation with Latin americans. And always send a high-level executive to meet with Latin American customers so that they know you take their business seriously. Meanwhile, employees are less prone to challenge authority and thus having lower autonomy in work. On the other hand, lower-level employees expect their manager to be assertive, skilful, and able to guide and manage people.

#4: Business etiquette  

In contrast with Northern American and Northern European business cultures, Latin American cultures are considered to be more flexible with scheduling or meetings. “El tiempo es como el espacio.” – time is space. Latin Americans may be late, but you’re expected to be punctual, especially in Costa Rica and Chile. Hence, meetings may not start at the precise time and last longer than expected. Be considerate when arranging appointments within vacation periods. For example, it’s better not to set meetings in January, February, middle weeks of July in Argentina. Before starting business talk, Latin Americans prefer having a small talk about common topics. Moving to body language, Latin Americans are likely to hold a handshake firmly, embrace, and give two kisses on the cheek. This openness is also reflected in the way that Latin Americans often stand closer to one another in a conversation. Business people are expected to dress smart casually and sometimes conservatively.

Specific ‘good-to-know’ rules when doing business with Latin americans:

  • The sign ‘okay’ formed by your forefinger and thumb is considered rude in Brazil and Colombia
  • Never pour wine with the left hand in Brazil
  • Slapping your right fist into your left palm is not acceptable in Chile
  • Hold your palm up with your fingers spread means ‘stupid’ to Chileans
  • A warm embrace or hug is common when you already know each other – this behaviour is acceptable except for Costa Rica
  • Don’t cross your fingers in Paraguay
  • Put your hands on your hips indicates a challenge to Argentinians
  • Put your hands in your pockets is rude in Mexico
  • Always stand when a lady joins or leaves the table
  • Don’t eat until everyone is served and keep your hands on the table when dining
  • Gifting at the first encounter is commonly expected in Bolivia, Columbia and Costa Rica
  • Never send purple flowers to Brazilians or white ones to El Salvadorans or Guatemalans
  • Reduce language barrier (mainly Spanish but Portuguese in Brazil) by bringing along an interpreter or a bilingual partner
  • Try to learn some typical religions namely Catholicism and show enthusiasm that you would like to learn more from their cultures and countries

Thank you for reading! Please share if you find this article useful.

Recommended reading:

Meyer, E. (2014) The culture map

Chalmers, E. (n.d.) Business etiquette in Latin America






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