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Colombian Business Etiquette

Relative to other South American countries it is expensive to do business in Colombia. Business in the major cities of Bogota and Cartagena is similar to the costs in American and European cities. 

Business centers of Colombia are dedicated to creating a modern business environment. Business etiquette is globally minded, but still influenced by Colombian cultural norms. Most business is relegated to the cities. In these urban areas, those in the private sector are more sophisticated than in other regions. There is a resulting obvious class distinction between those who have access to education and business and others. Across all socioeconomic areas and regions, Colombians are hard working people with an obviously strong work ethic.

Due to political and social unrest, going outside of the major cities should be done cautiously.

Colombian Business Attire

Traditional business attire is normal in Colombia. The Colombians take pride in being put together and polished. Men should wear suits in dark, neutral colors. Women should wear the equivalent, including women’s suits and professional dresses. Be well groomed, always. Avoid being too casual.

Shoes are incredibly important. Do not underestimate them. It is never acceptable to wear tennis shoes outside of an athletic context. Dress shoes should be well cared for, keeping them polished and clean. 

Women should avoid being overly flashy, though makeup and heels are the norm.

Daytime

Daytime business is more traditionally suit-and-tie. Daytime meetings—including working breakfasts and lunches, are popular. They occur in hotels and private clubs. Even outside of office environments, traditional business attire is status quo. 

Evening Dinners

Evening dinners and cocktail receptions are commonplace. The attire will likely be more relaxed. If it is at a restaurant, it is wise to look up the restaurant online or ask a concierge about the dress code. 

Language Barriers in Colombia

Spanish is spoken by nearly all Colombians. The exception is some minor indigenous groups that you are unlikely to come across. However, there are a great number of dialects based on the large number of cultural influences from the Caribbean, Europe, and South America. 

Even if you studied Spanish, a translator will be helpful for any business-level discussion. Colombians are friendly and social. You can probably manage shops and tourist-friendly areas with a reasonable amount of Spanish. However, regional idioms and dialects can be challenging, especially when you’re involved in legal disputes.

Business Meals and Socializing in Colombia

Business is personal in Colombia. Most business will stop at some point if based on email, telephone, or video-conferencing. 

People want to get to know and trust you before doing business. Face-to-face meetings are necessary for most business. Relationship building is the groundwork of any business in Colombia. Networking and socializing are essential parts of Colombian business culture. The importance of working meals rests on this cultural value. Most meals will last two to three hours.

They are invested in their guests having a good time. Do not rush into business talk. It won’t show the same interest in developing rapport. 

Let your Colombian counterparts start the business discussion.

Dining and Entertaining at Home

If you are invited to someone’s home, it is appropriate to bring a small gift or flowers for the hostess. Avoid lilies or chrysanthemums since they’re funerary flowers. 

Colombians value family above business associates. Family will always take priority. So, be sure to be on your best manners. 

Colombian Dining Etiquette

Lunch is the most important meal of the day in Colombia. Breakfasts and dinners tend to be lighter. Be prepared for a large, slower meal. It is common to have business lunches, but they will feel more like dinner to a foreigner. 

Colombians take manners very seriously. If you are male, use more traditional business manners towards women. For example, getting the door, standing at the table, and waiting to sit until after your company. 

Do not eat with your hands. Stay with formal dining etiquette. 

Always keep both hands in sight, but keep your elbows off the table. Resting your wrists or forearms on the table is appropriate.

The check is picked up by whoever gave the invitation.

Colombian Business Etiquette 

Hierarchy

Business in Colombia is run traditionally with established hierarchies. Decisions will come from key senior employees. Those decision points will happen in-office, while meals are for creating personal relationships. Those relationships are critical to ongoing business and the decisions at hand.

Greetings

Smile freely. Greeting everyone with a smile is expected. You do not have to be somber to be serious in Colombia. 

Small talk will likely come at the beginning and end of meetings. Trying to leave early or avoid chatting may be taken for rudeness.

Shake hands with everyone when joining or leaving a group. 

Punctuality

Be on time—and relax. It is important to be on time to business meetings. That said, there is a 50-50 chance you’ll end up waiting up to 30 minutes. 

Time works differently. Someone may say they will get to you tomorrow and not actually do so until the next week. Be patient and do not take this personally. Do not commit to anything dependent on those time commitments. 

Business Meetings

Colombians have a closer talking distance than most Americans and Europeans. Despite this, they touch less frequently than the rest of South America. 

  • Shake everyone’s hand and smile. Colombian women may grip the forearm instead of hand.

  • Allow socializing and personal conversation.

  • Let the Colombian counterpart bring up the business at hand.

  • If you have materials, which are advisable, be sure to have them translated into Spanish. Bring enough for all attendees. Printed materials go over well.

Follow all business meetings with a written memorandum or correspondence detailing the highlights and outcomes. 

After sending the follow-up correspondence, it is best practice to follow-up in person. If it is impossible to follow-up in person, a phone call is the best alternative.

Cross-cultural Business Communication

Maintain eye contact to leave a good impression, no matter what. 

Colombians are not fond of confrontation and may be indirect. As business is based on personal relationships, business disagreements can be taken as a slight. 

Agreements and contracts should be detailed and written.

If you are a woman doing business in Colombia, be aware that it is a highly male dominated country. Gender roles remain traditional. 

Colombian Cultural Taboos

  • Do not use an index finger to beacon someone. You can wave someone over with your palm down.

  • Yawning is impolite.

  • Do not put your feet up.

  • Do not criticize Colombia or Colombian culture. The Colombians are very proud. 

  • Pointing with two fingers is an obscene gesture. 

Be Safe: Crime and Safety in Colombia

Colombia has improved its public safety a great deal in recent years. Nonetheless, there is a sordid history of crime, especially relating to the cartels and illegal drug trade. Most notably, there have been kidnappings for ransom of prominent Colombians. However, as a tourist you may stand out as a mark for petty criminals, like pickpockets or thieves. Take extra precautions when travelling in Colombia. 

  • Whenever possible, take a reliable and established car service. Do not take personal cars offering discounted travel. 

  • Use the concierge at your hotel for a recommended driver or service. 

  • Avoid being alone in areas without a lot of pedestrian traffic.

  • Choose travel groups or tours for larger excursions, particularly those out of town. 

  • Take air travel between cities.

Read our additional tips for traveling in Colombia.

The Colombians are friendly, so ask colleagues and contacts for any advice on safe destinations, travel, and accommodations. 

Planet Depos is an international court reporter agency. Learn more about preparing depositions and court reporting in Colombia




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