Business etiquette in South Africa
If you're working or doing business with South African businesses, avoid business cultural blunders with this guide to business etiquette in South Africa.
If you plan on doing business in South Africa, or working with a South African company, it's important to be aware of business etiquette in South Africa. Business interactions are always fraught with unspoken assumptions and expectations. But when you’re an expat in a new country, all bets are off. An astute awareness of South African cultural differences can make the different between a successful business meeting and a deal gone bad. Here is our list of do’s and don’ts when making business interactions in South Africa:
- South Africans are often reluctant to deal with those people they haven’t met. Seek to obtain introductions from a mutual contact in order to begin a business relationship. If you can, draw the person’s attention to any South African business references you may already have.
- It is advisable to obtain letters of introduction if you have done business with mutual contacts of the company or businessperson you wish to entreaty.
- A first business meeting should be more about getting to know one another than a strict discussion of business matters. South Africans are more likely to do business with expats if they like and trust you as a person.
- Almost everything is shut down during mid-December to mid-January as well as during the week of Easter and most Jewish holidays. Be sure to plan your meetings outside of the periods.
- Office hours are similar to those in Western countries and most South African businesspeople do not work on weekends. Exceptions are bank employees and government workers as banks and government offices are often open in the mornings for a half a day on Saturdays.
- It can be a challenge to find an address in South Africa due to the manner in which the system has been set up. If you are driving to a business meeting, be sure to allow plenty of time to find the location and to locate safe parking. It may be advisable to take a taxi instead.
- Appropriate business attire includes suits and ties. Shirts are usually light in colour. If you are not wearing a jacket, be sure to wear a long sleeved-shirt. If you are invited to dinner at someone’s home, a dinner jacket is usually expected. It is preferable for women to wear dresses and skirts rather than pantsuits and the former should not be sleeveless, too tight, or very short. Remember that winter is between June and August, so plan to dress somewhat more warmly in these months.
- Most South Africans speak English as a second language and it is not expected that you translate documents or materials into any of the African languages.
- Never raise your voice and always keep a mild tone when conversing. As elsewhere, it is considered rude to interrupt a speaker. When speaking with female associates, do not use the term “miss” if you do not know the woman’s actual marital status; doing so may offend her.
- South Africans are very friendly and may express affection openly. You may find an associate slaps you on the back, shakes your hand, or even holds your hand in a sign of friendship.
- It is advisable to offer small gifts to associates, and when invited to a home for dinner, always bring a gift of chocolate, good wine, or similar.
- It is important to always show respect to elders, even if they are not part of the company. Elders are considered wise and deserving of respect; those who disrespect them are considered undesirable business partners.
- In some circles women are still seen as inferior to men in the business world. A woman can prove herself by knowing her subject matter and not being aggressive.
- At dinner parties, vegetarians might be viewed oddly, as most South Africans are meat enthusiasts. As to cutlery, the knife is always kept in the right hand and the fork in left—never change hands and never wave your hands around while holding silverware. It is a mild insult to leave food on your plate uneaten. Smoking is usually accepted but not until after the guests have finished eating. Do not have conversations with servants during dinner.
- It is considered rude to point your index finger at anyone, and the 'V' for victory sign is considered lewd. Never have a conversation with anyone while keeping your hands in your pockets.
- Be sure to make constant eye contact and nod often to indicate you agree with those you are conversing with. It is important to appear to be a good listener.
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