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Doing Business in Mexico


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

May/June 2010, eSide Supply Management Vol. 3, No. 3

Business etiquette tips.

With advantages including cost competitiveness, cultural affinity, abundant resources, time zones and cultures that align with the United States', and a growing, relatively low-cost, skilled bilingual workforce, U.S. supply management professionals are setting their sights on Mexico as a low-cost-country sourcing destination.

For all its geographic proximity, however, the cultures of the two places are vastly different — and the business environment is no exception. So, before you travel south, be sure to study up on some basic professional etiquette.

Meeting Preparation
Mexico CityMexico City

Send the appropriate people. Be sure to send the right level of people to conduct your organization's business. Sending a junior person to see a director, for example, will offend your Mexican counterparts. It's important that equals meet to discuss dealings.

Let them know you're in town. Most Mexican executives treat meetings with foreign counterparts as tentative until they know those people are actually in the country. Call from your hotel to confirm your appointment, and let your contacts in Mexico know how to reach you.

Show up on time, even if they don't. Although your Mexican counterparts might keep you waiting up to 30 minutes past the scheduled meeting time, as foreign businesspeople, they will nevertheless expect you to be punctual.

Handshake hints. Handshakes or slight bows are common greetings upon introduction. When greeting a Mexican businesswoman, let her extend her hand first. When one businesswoman meets another, they often pat each other on the right forearm or shoulder.

Take what's offered. If your counterparts offer you coffee or tea, don't refuse. It would be seen as an insult.

Business Attire

For men: In inland cities, dress conservatively. Opt for dark colors, and always make sure you wear a neatly pressed shirt and tie (except at casual functions) and polished shoes. In tropical Mexican cities, opt for dress pants, a nice shirt and shoes with socks — not sandals — to avoid looking too casual.

For women: Femininity is encouraged, so make-up, high heels, hosiery, skirts, dresses, skirted suits or skirts and blouses are all good choices. Avoid anything cut too low, and leave valuable jewelry at home.

Communication Cues

Language lessons. Because Spanish is the preferred language of business, it might be wise to hire an interpreter — preferably a native speaker. Even smarter would be to learn a bit of Spanish, even if it's just a handful of key phrases. Any demonstration of knowledge and appreciation for Mexican culture wins friends.

Expand your concept of personal space, literally. In Mexico, it's common to stand close together when talking and to "hold" a gesture — a handshake, a squeeze of the arm or a hug — for longer than most U.S. businesspeople are used to. Your Mexican counterparts will consider it rude to show signs of discomfort at this closeness.

Check your stance. Standing with your hands on your hips is often interpreted as anger, or as if you're issuing a challenge. Also, avoid putting your hands in your pockets.

Brush up your small-talk skills. Most meetings won't get down to business until after 10 or 15 minutes of casual conversation has passed.

Welcome (and taboo) topics of conversation. Before you go, study up on Mexican sports news, especially soccer. Other welcome topics include Mexican scenery and landmarks, your immediate surroundings, Mexican history and culture, and positive thoughts about the city and the people encountered there.

Topics to avoid include the weather, religion, Mexican politics, illegal aliens and any unflattering comparisons between Mexico and the United States.

Gestures and utterances to avoid. The "OK" symbol is considered vulgar and offensive. Likewise, never use the Lord's name in vain — especially in public, as it's considered deeply offensive. Also, place money or credit cards directly in the clerk's or waiter's hand upon payment, and never throw documents on the table during a business meeting.

For women only. International business experts warn that women should prepare for some difficulty conducting business in Mexico because many Mexican businessmen haven't had many dealings with women in positions of authority. Talk and behavior that might be considered sexist and inappropriate in the United States — flirting and giving many compliments, for instance — might be encountered in Mexico. In these instances, experts recommend a woman graciously accept the banter while firmly reminding the men of her businesswoman status. Also, because appearances are important, a foreign businesswoman should not invite a male Mexican counterpart in to dinner or to socialize unless she also invites his wife.

Introductions, Farewells and Everything in Between
Mexico CityMexico City

Status is important here. In Mexico, individuals with degrees and certain professional qualifications with titles will expect to be addressed accordingly. Common titles include "doctor/a," "profesor/a," "ingeniero/a" (engineer) and "abogado/a" (lawyer). Pay attention to business cards and correspondence that indicate such designations.

Otherwise, preface every name with a courtesy title: "Senor" (Mr.), "Senora" (Mrs.) or "Senorita" (Miss).

Social Etiquette

Focus on the friendships. International business experts agree that if you're looking to build business relationships in Mexico, it starts with making friends. Mexican businesspeople are wary of conducting business with people they don't know well.

Pay attention to the details. Your hotel accommodations, the quality of your clothes and accessories, and how you arrive to the meeting (limousine versus taxi, for example) will be critically appraised by your Mexican counterparts.

Never refuse a social invitation. Business entertainment is when personal relationships — which, as mentioned, are of the greatest value to Mexican businesspeople — are developed. Especially if you are invited to a counterpart's home, avoid talking business; focus instead on building the personal relationship.

Dining do's and don'ts. Do expect to discuss business at breakfast and lunch meetings. Do expect dining out to last longer than you're used to. Do keep both hands above the table at all times. Do expect to pick up the check if you issued the invitation — and, if you're the one who was invited, always at least attempt to pay the bill. (Your host probably won't let you, but will appreciate the gesture.)

Don't leave the table immediately after eating. Don't drink to excess.

Gift-giving guidelines. Though not necessarily expected, gifts are much appreciated. Neutral gifts bearing your company logo are a good choice for first visits. Beyond that, a bottle of wine or scotch is a good idea. Avoid gifts made of silver, however, as Mexican silver is of the finest quality in the world.

A Done Deal

Make sure to schedule some face time. Contracts are usually agreed to in person, but rarely over the phone, and even less frequently by letter.

Don't say "no" outright. Saying "no" is seen as rude and pushy. Instead, follow your Mexican counterparts' lead and answer with a more noncommittal "maybe" type of response. Be aware that "mañana" — which typically means "morning" or "tomorrow" in Spanish — is sometimes substituted for "no."

Don't jump to conclusions. Before agreeing to anything, take some time for consideration. Otherwise, you risk being regarded as a hasty decision-maker.

Get it in writing. Don't rely on a verbal promise. Ask for written confirmation of any agreement or commitment.

Be prepared to wait (patiently). Because building personal relationships with foreign counterparts is of utmost importance to Mexican businesspeople, expect negotiations to move slowly.

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a senior writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. She can be reached by e-mail.

For more articles and resources on doing business internationally, visit the ISM articles database.

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