Three years ago, I began working with Latin American brands and agencies. At the time, I joked that being Mexican-American had finally paid off for me. But as it turns out, an upbringing filled with carne asada, telenovelas, and Liga MX didn’t prepare me for the complex and distinctive business styles I found throughout Latin America.
Others may find themselves navigating that world more and more before long, if they haven't already. In a TechCrunch article last month, writer Julie Ruvolo points out that "top Silicon Valley firms are making their first investments in the region." She notes that major VC funds from Andreessen Horowitz to Founders Fund are putting money into Latin American markets for the first time ever, hoping to capitalize on rapidly expanding mobile and internet usage.
That suggests it's never been more imperative for U.S. tech companies and entrepreneurs to understand the basics of the Latin American work cultures. After all, the last thing you want to do is refer to a Brazilian as "Hispanic." Fortunately for you, I’ve had my fair share of misadventures in the more than three years I've spent working in the region, so consider this your primer on doing business in Latin America.
I was getting frustrated. We’d been waiting at the lobby of an agency for about an hour and there was still no word from our contact. Had I been in the U.S., I’d have shot off a few passive aggressive emails and even rescheduled or canceled the meeting. But this was Brazil, and things apparently operated at a different pace.
"In Brazil, it’s polite to be 30 minutes late," joked my Brazilian counterpart, who felt this experience was pretty representative of how things are done. It's a cliché that in the United States time truly is money—once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. But in South America, I've since learned, time is more often cyclical; it’s more important to finish the conversation than to finish on time. In other words, if you insist on keeping to a strict schedule, you’re going to have some problems.
It’s been three years since our acquisition by Google, but the Waze headquarters remain in Tel Aviv, where it was founded in 2008. So the company's culture, in my experience, still has an Israeli DNA—one that relies more on direct communication, even at the expense of someone’s feelings.
But I've found this direct approach doesn’t work so well in Latin America, where people may be more prone to take negative feedback personally. You may find you have to play closer attention to the person’s feelings. Sean Green, an American manager, told the Harvard Business Review that if he wanted to make progress in negotiations, he had to say things like, "I do not quite understand your point" and "Please explain more why you think that." If he disagreed openly and directly, it would kill the deal.
Generally speaking, I've found that Latin Americans like to get to know someone before engaging in business talk. Many meetings I've participated in seemed more like informal chats, with both parties simply looking to establish trust. In an article for the BBC, Arianna Valcarcel, an American expat in Lima, notes that "people are much less direct when doing business and you have to build the relationship first . . . If you just go in and get straight to the point it’s considered offensive."
I struggled with this during my first few visits to the region. I wanted to get in and out—with minimal formalities and pleasantries. But the irony, of course, is that the more I tried to speed up meetings, the more I slowed down negotiations.
In the United States, it’s common for men and women to exchange handshakes in professional settings. But in Latin America, prepare to get a lot closer, much faster. While handshakes are common during initial meetings, the warm culture of Latin American often means that kisses and hugs, regardless of gender, are much more common. If two men know each other, they may hug or share a light kiss. Men and women will exchange two kisses, and women meeting women will often hug and kiss.
Of course, this is very contextual, and there have been times when I've gone in for the kiss only for a Latin American woman, expecting me—an American—to opt for a handshake, to greet me with an extended arm. The result is an awkward hug-and-quasi-kiss combo that makes everyone uncomfortable.
My personal hack? I always make it loud and clear from my body language that I’m coming in for a hug, which tends to be the safer option that still lets me show I'm tuned into the culture. (I actually like to think I'm a great hugger, so if you’ve received a hug from me in a business context, feel free to endorse me for the skill on LinkedIn!) If you'd rather not make physical contact with someone you're doing business with, it may go against the grain but remains your prerogative—you just may want to make that loud and clear, too, while still conveying warmth: extend your hand heartily and offer a big smile instead.
Unfortunately, I've found that the stereotype that Americans only speak one language is all too true. In or outside business contexts, it’s always good to learn a few words in the local language of whatever place you’re traveling to. No matter how bad your accent is, people will appreciate the effort.
After I gave my first presentation in Portuguese in Brazil, I received a standing ovation. But it definitely wasn’t because of the content—it was a very basic, super short overview of Waze Ads. As my colleague told me later, though, the crowd was ecstatic because it’s so rare that a gringo would come to Brazil and adapt to Portuguese instead of expecting the crowd to adapt to English.
Working in Latin America has made me more aware of how American my temperament actually is. In retrospect, it was only through the experiences I've had in the region lately that I was able to really understand my own cultural tendencies. Yet my time there has also brought me closer to my Latin American roots. I’m very proud of my multicultural upbringing—It’s what has allowed me fit in wherever I go. That didn’t spare me from some cultural gaffes during my first few times in the region, though, but maybe this recap of the biggest of them will help your own negocios go smoothly from the get-go.
Eric M. Ruiz is a writer and strategist for Waze, the GPS and navigation app that was acquired by Google in 2013. A native of Modesto, California, Eric now resides in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @EricMartinRuiz.