Bolivian Customs: Business Etiquette

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The most important thing to know about business etiquette in Bolivia is that Bolivians prefer to do business with people they know and trust and will often keep their business dealings within a close-knit family and social circle. Because social interaction is so important to the success of your business dealings, your social etiquette and dining etiquette are just as important, or even more, to corporate success. Simply put, businesspeople are not likely to do business with anyone who may cause them embarrassment in social situations.

Bolivians tend to be formal socially, and even more so when conducting business. Your business etiquette, conduct and attire are both important to ensuring the success of your business dealings.

Business Customs in Bolivian Culture

• Always be professional in your demeanor and in your business dealings. Follow the lead of your Bolivian counterparts when it comes to attire, the mood and setting of your meetings, meetings they’ve arranged for you with others, etc.

• You should being with a firm handshake when first introduced. Eye contact and a smile are both important. Be professional but don’t be too stiff or serious. Friendliness and good social graces are essential and a smile will go a long way.

• Begin your greeting with “Buenos días” (good day) or “Buenas tardes” (good afternoon) or “Buenas noches” (good evening). Allow your host to introduce his/her staff before you introduce yours is good business etiquette.

• Businesspeople are proud of their titles. When introducing your staff or other companions use their title when addressing or introducing them to others. You don’t always name each person by their profession. Many professions are grouped under one title: “licenciado” (meaning “graduate”). Bolivians use this for many professions. For example, a psychologist might be Licenciada Arratia, an engineer might be Ingeniero Sandovál, a doctor might be Doctora Giménez, a government employee might be Licenciado Carval. The point is, if you are unsure, call them Licenciado(a). It acknowledges that you know they are a certified or titled professional.

• Speaking of professionals, there is a big difference between being a professional and acting in professionally. In Bolivia, whether or not you act professionally or are well qualified for your job, if you have a university degree, you are called a professional. So when people tell you “She is a professional” they really mean “She is a university graduate”. This says nothing about that person’s expertise or qualifications for a position.

• It is not good social or business etiquette to address a person by their first name until they have done so with you first. When they begin to use your first name, you can rest assured you have progressed to a more advanced and trusted position with them. When they introduce you to other businesspeople using your first name, this means they consider you a friend and trust you enough to refer you to others, because they know that by introducing you they are actually recommending you and facilitating the way for future business between yourself and the other person.

• There are two ways to say the world YOU in Spanish: Usted is formal, and Tú is informal. Always use Usted in business and socially. When your Bolivian counterpart trusts you and has bonded with you, they will begin to use Tú. That’s when you know you are well on your way to establishing a good business relationship with them. If after weeks and months of interaction they do not switch to the informal form, you don’t fret. Some families are much more formal with others – many friends of mine call their parents and siblings “Usted”. They just simply cannot abandon the formality with which they were raised. Follow their lead and copy the business etiquette they are using and you should be fine.

• Foreigners find the issue of punctuality (or lack of) frustrating in Bolivia. Socially, it is acceptable and even polite to be 15-30 minutes late to a dinner or event. But in business you should always be punctual, even though meetings rarely begin on time.

• To be successful in business in Bolivia, you must understand that personal relationships are vital and must be cultivated. Getting a job or contract may depend more on who you know than your qualifications. Good social abilities are essential. Potential business partners will socialize and get to know each other prior to conducting business.

• Deadlines are often not met. This is not for lack of good business etiquette. This is just one area, maybe the only area, in which Bolivians are less formal instead of more formal than you. Foreigners often think Bolivians don’t consider deadlines important. This is not true. However, conducting business is much more complicated and there is a lot of red tape and documentation involved. Things take longer to accomplish so any deadlines you set should be realistic.

• People prefer to conduct business in person in Bolivia. Calls, faxes, and emails are not likely to be very effective, at least not until you and your Bolivian business partners are thoroughly familiar with each other. You will be closely studied during your first social and business interactions with potential Bolivian business partners. First impressions and your social and business etiquette are vitally important.

• If you are not well known in Bolivia, you would do well to have a local contact do your business moving and shaking for you amongst the Bolivian business community until you people are familiar enough with you to call on you themselves and accept your invitations as well.

• Since face-to-face interaction is so important when doing business here, you should plan on holding several meetings on an issue before coming to agreements or entering into a contract.

• Because people take a lot of time to get to know each other prior to committing to a business deal, the pace is much slower (and sometimes frustrating for foreigners) in Bolivia. You can’t rush business here. It takes time to cultivate the truly personal relationship that will hold up and sustain the eventual business relationship that follows.

• You will need a lot of patience. Your deal can fall apart if you become angered, show impatience, or pressure people too much. Rushing a deal never bodes well in Bolivia. Even if you eventually do sign a contract, your Bolivian counterparts will never fully trust you and there will be underlying resentment that could lead to problems in the future. Of course, you have to be realistic on your end too - so if the timeline is simply just not working for you, take your business elsewhere.

• Don’t rely on oral contracts at all ever. Nothing is final until a contract is signed and even after that, until all accompanying documentation is signed, notarized, and completely finalized in all ways.

• Plan to hold several meetings, not just one. Meet as many times as needed until you are finally able to meet with the highest-ranking decision-maker.

• In the workplace, any errors employees make should be pointed out to them in private. Correcting someone in front of others is considered hostile. Remember that if you are a foreigner employing nationals in Bolivia, you are bound by all Bolivian employment laws.

• It is customary business etiquette to present your potential business partner with a gift and, if invited to dine with his/her family, something for their spouse and/or children. Promotional items with company logos should be small and unimposing as promotional items are usually used for advertising the business image to the public. Cigars, books, art, flowers (for women), high-end spirits or chocolates make more appropriate gifts to business colleagues – in other words, something they can share or talk about socially with you. An especially well-researched or thought out gift will go a long way.

• When you give someone a wrapped or packaged gift, they won’t usually open it in front of you. They’ll wait until you are gone. However, it is considered polite for them to share your gift with you. For example, a bottle of whisky, a couple of cigars, or a box of chocolates may be brought out after dinner that evening and you’ll both partake of them.

• Bolivians love it when you make an effort to speak Spanish. Most upper class Bolivians speak English, French or German. However, even if they do, they will admire you more if you make an attempt to speak Spanish. Even if your Spanish is atrocious, the fact that you tried will score you more points with them than if you come to Bolivia just assuming that everyone else will make the effort for you. Bad grammar and a poor vocabulary don’t matter – what matters is that you tried. Big points here!

• Your demeanor is important as are your business etiquette and social skills. Business is conducted in a warm and friendly manner. Don’t confuse the formality with being stilted or cold. Formality and friendliness go hand in hand for business here.

• Maintain direct and constant eye contact with anyone who is speaking with you at all times. Lowering your eyes or shifting your view causes people to think you are not trustworthy. It is bad business etiquette to look away as you talk to someone or when they are talking to you. It makes them feel that you don't think their presence is important to you.

• If you are a woman you will have to work extra hard on your business etiquette and even harder to become trusted and be treated as an equal, or at least as an ally. Your credentials and experience will be very important.

• Men wear suits and ties when conducting business. Don’t take off your jacket or tie until your counterpart does. Wear light fabrics and colors in Santa Cruz during the summer as the humidity can be stifling. In La Paz people tend to wear dark-colored suits in heavier fabrics.

• Women should wear skirts down to the knee and a crisp shirt and jacket. Skirts above the knee are considered seductive. In Santa Cruz you will notice women wear very very short skirts, even to work. You will also notice they may all be wearing uniforms. They are secretarial and administrative staff and are not usually treated as equals, rather most of them are very subordinated in the workplace and may never hold a higher position. A woman who dresses impeccably and very professionally will be taken more seriously. In Bolivia, what you wear has everything to do with your professional progress.

• Women should not get too physically friendly with male business counterparts and by this I mean that men often, when relaxed around each other, will pat each other on the back, laugh heartily, socialize at night, etc. Women have a much harder time gaining respect professionally in Bolivia. Touching a man in any way during a business conversation, laughing too heartily and becoming too familiar may be seen as seductive and you will cease to be taken seriously. While dinner may be important to gaining their trust for business, staying out too late and drinking too heavily will not work in your favor.

• Be especially careful about Friday nights as in Bolivia they are considered “noche de soltero” (Bachelors' Friday). Men go out without their wives or girlfriends. Even if you plan to discuss business over dinner, you’ll quickly find business will be forgotten by about 10 p.m. when noche de soltero begins, and your presence will not be appreciated after that. “Hanging out with the guys” will not score you brownie points. And if they’ve got a wife or girlfriend, don’t interact with the men in a very familiar way. Santa Cruz is a big city with a small town grapevine.

• Be aware that smoking indoors is not against the law in Bolivia and people quite often smoke in their offices. Asking them not to smoke is considered rude and imposing. If you are a smoker, do not smoke unless your host smokes too, and if you smoke, always offer cigarettes to all the people around you. It is rude to smoke without offering to share with everyone else.

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