How to Behave on a Business Trip to Latin America

On a business trip to Latin America, remember that Latin American men are in business, and women stay home with the family. A business trip in many locations in Latin America can be jarring, especially for a businesswoman, for this reason. Here's a summary of Latin American business facts:

  • Language: Spanish is the primary language spoken in Latin America, where people are proud of their language and aren’t particularly eager to use English. Brazil, however, uses Brazilian Portuguese as its official language, but many Brazilians also understand Spanish.

  • Appropriate dress: You won’t go wrong by dressing conservatively: suits and ties for men, modest business suits and long dresses for women.

  • Greeting rituals: Latin Americans generally are very friendly, very physical, and very good hosts. Handshakes are firm and relatively brief. Throughout Latin America, expect your conversational partner to stand close to you, and expect casual arm touching or shoulder patting. Don’t move back, and don’t waver in your eye contact.

    Business cards are exchanged without much ceremony. Your business card should be printed in both English and Spanish (or in Brazilian Portuguese if you’re in Brazil).

  • Handling meetings: You’re expected to arrive in a timely manner, but your host isn’t, and the more important he is, the later he’ll be. Meetings themselves involve lots of preliminary discussions designed to establish rapport. Business discussions occur only after rapport is established, and after they start, they’re comparatively disorganized and subject to interruption. Decisions typically aren’t made during first meetings.

  • Dining and entertaining: Business lunches are common throughout Latin America, and they’re usually long. Dinner is a purely social event and can occur very late. Don’t bring up business at dinner unless your Latin American host does so first.

  • Giving and receiving gifts: Gifts in most Latin American countries aren’t expected on the first visit; however, gift-giving is more acceptable with subsequent visits and can help build stronger business relationships and friendships. Appropriate gifts include fine chocolates, a bottle of good wine or liquor (if you know the recipient drinks), business card holders, high-quality pens, or other office accessories.

  • Social taboos: The sign for “okay” formed by your forefinger and thumb is offensive in Brazil and Colombia. Don’t cross your fingers (as a sign of good luck) in Paraguay; it denotes the act of sex. Putting your hands on your hips signals a challenge in Argentina. Raising your fist to head level is a gesture associated with communism in Chile. Also, slapping your right fist into your open left palm is viewed as an obscene gesture, and displaying your palm up with your fingers spread apart means “stupid.” Putting your hands in your pockets is rude in Mexico.

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