With the high altitude in Colombia it’s a good idea to arrive at least one day before your appointment to adjust. In Colombia the mail service is a little less than ideal so make sure that all appointments are made weeks in advance, by phone or fax. Business hours are usually nine to five on weekdays. Store hours are normally 9:00 a.m. to about 7:00 p.m.
You may be judged by how you dress so choose conservative attire which is not dated or well-worn. Grooming is important in Colombia as it is in most countries. Pay close attention to the condition of shoes, accessories, hair and nails.
Maintain eye contact upon introductions and while conversing. Acceptable topics of conversation include Colombian history and culture, coffee, cuisine, history, literature, art or music. Avoid topics of terrorism, drug cartels, anything negative about bullfighting, criticisms about the country.
Address people by their title and surname, but if unknown, use “Senor” for men, “Senora” for a married woman and “Senorita” for an unmarried woman. The title “Doctor” or “Doctora” for women, can be used for any man or woman of high class, even if they don’t hold a PhD.
If invited to a home or social engagement it’s okay to arrive about 15 to 30 minutes late. Bring a gift of chocolates or flowers but never marigolds or lilies which are only for funerals. Gifts which are wrapped are only opened in private. If someone gives you a gift thank them and set it aside for opening later. Poor gift choices are jewelry and clothing, considered too personal.
Business cards and materials should be printed in English on one side, Spanish on the other. Hand your cards out to associates, Spanish side upwards. How you conduct business is only one factor in sealing the deal. Whether or not the counterparts like you and can develop a rapport with you is the main ingredient to closing the deal.
You’ll often find that meetings begin with small talk. Go along with this and wait for the associates to bring up business. Some Colombians will tell you what they think you want to hear even if it’s not exactly how they feel. Over a period of time dealing with them you will learn to read between the lines, hopefully. After the business portion of the meeting is wrapped up it’s a good idea to stay and chat some more. This shows that you are not only interested in business with the Colombians but that you are also interested in them outside of the business realm. Business in Colombia is rather formal so send a summary of the meeting, along with a thank-you, the following day.
Lunch is the largest meal of the day with most Colombians taking a couple of hours to dine with family. Dinner is usually between 7 and 9 p.m. but parties will begin and end later. Beware of bringing up business during lunch or dinner, unless your counterpart approaches the subject first. Since the main thing the Colombians are looking for in a business partner is a certain rapport you may have to hold several meetings without talking business whatsoever.
Proper table manners are all-important in this culture, as in many cultures. Picking up food is the first major no-no. Foods are almost always eaten with utensils no matter what type of food it is. The knife stays in the right hand and fork in the left – never switch this arrangement. Even if you’re left-handed the utensils will stay the same.
Never start eating or drinking before your host and/or hostess. Never be the first to offer a toast – this honor should fall on the host. If you are toasted offer a toast in return. Before serving yourself offer the foods to the others around you. Leave some food on your plate when you’re finished eating to represent having been fed more than enough. Place utensils across your plate to show that you are done.
Different cultures use different ways to summon a waiter or another person. In Colombia it is crude to summon someone by raising the hands over the head, clapping or making a hissing sound. Try to catch the eye of the wait person and nod. Or, extend the arm with palm down and curl fingers towards you.
It is standard to shake hands before and after each meeting. Upon initial introductions your Colombian counterpart make ask all types of questions concerning your travel, your family and your health. This is their way of letting you know that all is not just business. Rushing through introductions is also considered rude. And, Colombians tend to stand extremely close when conversing so don’t be caught off guard.
When in public it’s impolite to yawn. It’s also bad mannered to sneeze, yawn or cough – anywhere – without covering your mouth. Don’t use the American “ok” symbol by forming a circle with thumb and forefinger. Going barefoot, except on the beach, is taboo.
To succeed in Colombia don’t make the mistake of traveling to questionable areas alone. Give your business deal plenty of time to come to fruition. Work on having a rapport with your counterparts rather than just trying to conduct business. Dress well, speak softly and be prepared with a great presentation.