Networking Latino Style: The Three Unwritten Rules of Networking in Latin America

Introduction from Alana: 

In May 2013, I shared a blog post from my friend, Sandeep Kotwal, of Mumbai, India, wherein he shared his perspective on how networking is fostered in his country through its festivals.  At that time, I asked for input from others who had perspectives on networking in countries outside the United States.  I was thrilled to be approached by Arnobio Morelix.

Originally, from Brazil, Arnobio is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas who is spending this summer as a research and policy intern at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.  He is a gifted writer and radiant individual who does a wonderful job of capturing the “unwritten rules” of networking in Latin America and how it differs from the approach to networking in the United States.  I know you will enjoy learning from him.

Again, and if you have personal knowledge of the way networking works in another culture, I would love to hear from you!  Comment on this post or email me at Alana@CoffeeLunchCoffee.com.

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Guest post from Arnobio Morelix:

In the business world, multicultural understanding is increasingly important. This is particularly true for the relationship between the U.S.A. and the countries of Latin America. Today, three of the top 15 global top trade partners for the U.S.A. are Latin American nations. In addition, one in six Americans are of Hispanic or Latino background, according to the US Census.

Because of that, networking opportunities for these two cultures are increasingly more common. This can be observed in overall migration trends, with the growing Hispanic demographic in the U.S.A.; as well as in specific top-tier business relationships, such as the partnership of Warren Buffet with the Latin American group 3M for the Heinz buyout.

However, there is a caveat. It can be tricky to understand other cultures, and this is undoubtedly true for Latin America. Our culture is full of unwritten rules, and that can make networking in Latin America quite hard for foreigners.

So, to help you navigate the networking scene in Latin America, I created this short field guide explaining the key unwritten rules you will have to understand. In order to do so, I “reverse engineered” my experience as a Brazilian in the U.S., as well as compiled the experience of American friends who have done business in Latin America.

Understanding these unwritten rules will help you make sense of your networking experience in Latin America and, most important, help you establish real, fruitful connections. These three key unwritten rules are: 

  1. Personal bubbles are thinner.  The concept of “personal bubbles” was by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and it explains the distance people need between themselves and the person they are talking with. More formal cultures tend to require more space between the two interlocutors (i.e.: a wider personal bubble), while more informal cultures require less space. If you have ever seen two Latin Americans talking, you might have noticed how different our typical personal bubble is compared to the American one. 

    While in the U.S.A a certain distance between interlocutors is observed, and physical interaction is usually limited to a handshake, Latin Americans behave very differently. Non-spoken communication often includes touching on the back or arms, and very often we replace the traditional handshake with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. 

    Interestingly, the personal bubbles are thinner not only on a physical sense, but also in an emotional one. Latin Americans will tend to be more informal and establish a closer relationship when interacting, including in professional situations.A good friend of mine, an American working in Brazil, told to me that he was puzzled and somewhat amused by his business experience in Brazil. It was his first time meeting his to-be business partner, and before “talking business” he had dinner with his business partner’s family and talked almost exclusively about their personal lives and interests.

    Part of the dynamics of establishing friendship before doing business arises from our historical roots. Because our legal systems are not as developed as the one in the U.S.A., doing businesses with friends is a way of protecting your business from ill-intentioned people.

    When networking in Latin American, don’t be surprised if you get asked about you family or personal hobbies by someone you barely know. This is the Latin American way of going about establishing connections. In addition, while in strictly professional situations the hugs and kisses will be limited, you can expect they won’t be in more social functions, such as going out for coffee or lunch.

  2. Non-verbal communication is huge.  Latin Americans use a ton of non-verbal communication. In addition to the already mentioned physical contact, using hand gestures while talking is very common. Because we use a lot of gestures not found in other countries, it will probably take some time until you can fully use and understand them. In the meantime, the best solution is to ask about specific gestures you don’t know and wait until you get familiar with them.  (Bonus tip: never use the traditionally American “Ok” in Brazil. It is the equivalent flipping someone off, and your interlocutor will not be too happy!)
  3. Time has a flexible definition.  Time runs differently.  Time in Latin America tends to have a different elasticity. While people will be timely in professional situations, that is not quite true for social appointments. If you have ever heard about “island time,” expect to face a similar “Latino time.” 

    People are particularly late for social appointments, such as dinners or parties, and being five to 10 minutes late is considered to be “on time” even for professional situations. Because networking is somewhat in a blurry line between a social and a professional relationship, you can expect people to be a bit lenient with their schedules. 

    I know this uncertainty about schedules is frustrating for foreigners. It is even frustrating for us Latinos who visit home after being adapted to American timeliness. But since we cannot change the whole culture, the best we can do is to recognize it and adapt.

The Solution

I know it is not easy to understand a different culture. But here is the good news: because of all our informality, Latin Americans tend to be very welcoming of foreigners. People will understand you are an outsider, and will mostly do their best to make you feel comfortable.

These three unwritten rules largely boil down to our historical roots and can be summarized in one sentence. Simply put, we are a more informal culture that craves and embraces close human interaction, as any foreign visitor can attest to.

Whenever I feel uneasy abroad, I use one single principle to guide my networking experience. It is based on a saying I learned from my Dad, and I share it here with the hope that it will help you navigate your Latin American experience:

“What we take from life is the life we undertake.”

As long as we are ready to embrace the experience and establish real connections, networking will always be fruitful.

See you some day! For coffee, lunch or coffee.

17 thoughts to “Networking Latino Style: The Three Unwritten Rules of Networking in Latin America”

  1. Great article, I find that establishing a personal relationship with a prospective partners is good advice regardless of nationality.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, James! I agree that establishing personal relationships is great regardless from where in the world you are from.

  2. This is a really helpful artical. I like how you explain why Latin Americans are more informal in professional relationship. It makes sense after having more understanding of the historical roots. Obrigada!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Catherine. I am glad to hear you found understanding the historical context for networking in Latin America helpful.

    2. Thank you for your comment, Catherine. I am happy you found understanding the historical context for networking in Latin America helpful.

  3. As a Brazilian working in the US, I had to adapt to many different things, such as the very formal (at least to us) handshake. Still, I like to keep some of my Brazilian habits in the US and have noticed that it has been more of an advantage to me. People like to interact with someone a little different than them, as long as you are polite and respectful. Knowing both cultures very well, I can confirm exactly what Arnobio said and the three points he talks about are 100% true. Good job and hope you write more of these articles!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Francisco! I like your point about how these cultural differences can be used as a competitive advantage in the work place.

  4. Very well said Arnobio. I can definitely say from my experiences with Latinos that your points are spot on. Your way of saying it makes it much clearer for someone with an American perspective as to WHY these things are the way they are.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Brandon! I am glad you appreciated learning the whys behind traditional Latino characteristics.

  5. Dear Alana,
    Congratulations for your blog. Receive my toast for opening it for gifted people from different social communities, giving them the opportunity to express their thoughts, experiences, feelings and impressions. Reading Arnóbio`s text about the “unwritten rules” of networking in Latin America, I noticed that he is really a talented writer. His ideas are placed in a coherent and consistent way. As a Brazilian who is used to living in a foreign country, I agree with his statements and as a teacher in a public university in Brazil I have to say that I feel pleased to know that a Brazilian citizen is being considered by you, a distinguished recognized professional, as “a radiant individual who does a wonderful job “ abroad. Young bright people, like Arnóbio, certainly will contribute to networking in Brazil and they will make a significant useful difference for our country. In addition, the notion that “What we take from life is the life we undertake” can be one of the important perceptions for the success of a young enterpriser. Thank you for giving us the opportunity of learning from Arnóbio.
    Best regards, Angela

  6. Well being black and of mixed carribean, african & european decent I’m totally used to this. It can also be noted that most black Americans as well as Caribbeans have similar “rules” to the above. We’re much warmer, friendlier and more personal in our business relationships, generally. We like to get to know people – to their soul.

    I remember going on a business trip with my husband (who is white) to Puerto Rico and having a “9 AM” meeting in our hotel restaurant with our PR partners. At 8:30 he was rushing me from the room and I proceeded to educate him on what I call “CP Time” or “colored people time” which my grandmother told me about – basically the tendency of non-white people to be looser with time & schedules and therefore often “late”.

    I assured him they would not be on time. “Trust me”, I said. These are Puerto Ricans and they will not be on time. He went downstairs anyway at 8:45 to be on the safe side. I came strolling in at 9:15 and our partners had not yet arrived. So of course I took advantage of the “told you so” opportunity. 🙂

    At 9:30 they rolled in with big hugs, kisses, effusive “HI!”‘s all around and we had a wonderful lively breakfast.

    So, word to the wise – loosen up folks! Have a little fun!

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