Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba…the 20+ countries of Latin-America are all different, but share cultural similarities that non-Latin-Americans need to know about.

Working abroad is different. In different cultures, the food is different. People dress differently. People behave and even think differently. So why shouldn’t the way they do business in different cultures also be different? In many ways, it is, and you need to know before you go. Especially true if your competition knows the cultural rules, and you don’t. In the new “global world”, crossing borders is easy; crossing cultures is hard. So here are some important top ten CultureClues for successful work in Latin America:

#10: If you’re from the USA, you are NOT an “American”; instead, refer to yourself as someone from “Chicago”, or from the United States (Estados Unidos, in Spanish); remember, everyone living in the Americas is an American, and many Latin Americans do not appreciate when US-Americans claim the term “American” as their own. Your goal is to make friends, not alienate people.

#9: Never travel to Latin America without pictures of your family! Inquiring about the health and happiness of the family is one of the first topics of conversation at every business meeting. Be prepared to open up personally, so that people get to know you as a person first…who you are, what you like, your family, your background, etc. The goal is to establish a sense of trust and “simpatico” (that you have your associate’s interests at heart, and vice versa). Once that’s in place, everything else is easy; if that never happens, the deal never happens.

#8: Take your watch off when you sit down at the meeting and put it in your pocket. Relax. This is an important sign that your meeting with them is the most important event of your day. Arrive on time for business meetings, but be prepared to wait. Schedule meetings for the morning, whenever possible, as once the day gets rolling, schedules can go out the window. Once a meeting is set, confirm the date and time as it approaches. Send an agenda ahead of time, but keep it very general with time-frames being seen more as a guide than an absolute; at the meeting, expect discussion to flow in all directions. Be prepared to stay as long as necessary.

#7: For social events (dinners, parties at someone’s home, etc.), always arrive from one-half hour to a full hour later than the stated time (the actual time varies differently country by country). If you arrive “on time” at someone’s home for a dinner, for example, you will be the only one there, while the host and hostess will probably still be preparing. If the dinner is at a restaurant, the actual meal won’t begin until an hour or so later than the stated time, preceded by drinks and hor d’oeuvres. Expect dinners to start around 9p or 10p and go late into the evening (or early morning, in many cases).

#6: When greeting your business associates, men should expect the Latin American “abrazo”, which is a kind of “bro” embrace with both arms, that follows a firm handshake; women should also expect a gentler embrace from female colleagues, accompanied with the “air kiss” (cheek to cheek kiss): the number of kisses depends upon the country (3 for Brazil, 2 for Mexico, Argentina, 4 for Chile: the rule is, mirror what your Latin American colleague does). Following the abrazo, women and women might hold hands or link arms; men might rest their hands on each other’s shoulders, and Latin Americans, in general, are more comfortable standing close to each other: north Americans should NOT step back!

Teotihuacan, outside of Mexico City.

#5: Tequila in Mexico, especially at a business meal, is treated as a fine brandy: it is sipped and savored. Lesser quality tequila is “shot”: take a lick of salt from the side of your thumb, drink the shot, and follow that with a bite of lime. Mexican cuisine, outside of the street-fare, is regionally different and sophisticated: for example, tortillas, always served in individual covered containers, are white (made of wheat) in the north of Mexico, but yellow (made of corn) as you go south. Not all Latin-American food is spicy hot (piquante).

#4: Some non-verbal signs you should be mindful of: Pulling on the earlobe is a sign of positive interest and agreement; pulling down on the lower eyelid is a sign of distrust and disbelief; a few downward strokes on the cheek indicate admiration for your cleverness. NEVER make the US thumb-to-forefinger “OK” sign, especially in Brazil: it is very vulgar and highly offensive, and definitely does NOT mean OK!

#3: Most Latin Americans dress “up” for business: if you look powerful, you will be treated as such, and if you dress “down”, it will be assumed you have no authority. US “business casual” is generally NOT appropriate for important business meetings in Latin America. Men should, unless you have information to the contrary, always dress in suits and ties, and women should should always dress in fashionable business suits.

#2: Anticipate that English language competency, unless you know differently, may be surprisingly low. Most children learn English as a second language in school today, but it is mainly to read and write English, not to speak it. Therefore, people under 35 have higher levels of English competency than older people (but the older folks are more often the decision-makers), so speak with them at meetings, but give them time to “translate” to the older members of their team. Keep all presentation slides easy to read, with minimal words, and have all your handout materials, if at all possible, translated into Spanish or Portuguese (in Brazil).

#1: Be humble, as you can see from the above, differences abound, and they are neither wrong or right, just different. If you want to succeed in business in Latin America, show them that you respect — and know — the way they like to do business. They will be grateful for even just an effort in this direction, and you will earn their respect, and perhaps even their business! And if your competition knows the rules and you don’t, guess who gets the business!