Outsourcing is a partnership, where the buyer and provider must understand each other in order to work effectively together. But in Latin America, a number of cultural differences can interfere with this understanding.
Context- vs. Content
In U.S. business settings there is a strong emphasis on data, facts and specific details, resulting in a tendency to be literal-minded, direct, and highly explicit with verbal and written communications brief and to-the-point.
In Latin America there is generally a broader focus that includes relationship, circumstances, timing, and social appropriateness. The actual meaning of the words and gestures may depend, for example, on the hierarchical status of the parties involved, the degree of trust they share, or whether the communication takes place in public or private. Consequently, the Latino may seem ambiguous or evasive to the U.S. counterpart, while the American may be perceived as impersonal and overly direct or blunt.
“Molecular” vs. “Atomic” Social Structure
Studies show the American culture is the most individualistic in the world. Self-reliance, accountability, and speaking openly and frankly are acceptable and often admired.
By contrast, Latin American societies rank far lower. This requires that one be more indirect, diplomatic, non-confrontational, and cautious in communicating with others because there is a positive or negative multiplier effect in every social or business transaction, with a good interaction gaining multiple allies and a negative encounter numerous opponents.
Consequently, the U.S. businessperson may feel the Latin American is being excessively diplomatic or “flowery,” which is generally associated with insincerity in the United States. In contrast, the U.S. person’s individualism may be perceived as selfish or egotistical.
Task vs. Relationship
U.S. businesspeople are trained to be task-oriented, with most of the emphasis on the tangible outcome or result of a business project, not the process. Latin Americans tend to feel that it is essential to invest in establishing a relationship before focusing on the task, with faith that a positive relationship will lead to a good process, which in turn will produce the best results. As a result, too often, U.S. business people seem impersonal or aloof, putting tasks before relationships, while Latin Americans may be considered too slow to get started and not sufficiently “serious.” -
The U.S. culture is one of the most fast-paced and most future-oriented in the world. Punctuality, strict deadlines, high speed of work, and constant change are essential features of the workplace.
While the pace of life and work varies within Latin America, it is generally less intense than in the U.S. One reason is technology is somewhat less available in the workplace, although this is rapidly changing. More important is that building and maintaining relationships and the complex contextual dimensions of business simply takes more time. In addition, there is a greater awareness and appreciation of the past and a sense of history.
As a result, issues such as how soon to send a message and how quickly to respond frequently become sources of friction. The U.S. businessperson may appear hasty, rushed, and pushy, while the Latin American may seem to lack sufficient urgency.
In the U.S. business environment, firm handshakes, strong eye contact, and smiles are encouraged. Business associates while talking face-to-face typically stand about a meter apart, and dress is relatively conservative and formal.
In Latin America, there is less physical distance, softer handshakes, more touching and abrazos (hugs), and greater use of hand and arm gestures. Business dress tends to be more fashionable and, in some cases, more colorful.
Best Cultural Practices
Although there are exceptions to every rule, some basic rules to remember are:
- Avoid high-pressure sales tactics, as they are seen as confrontational.
- Relationships are viewed as more important than rules.
- Business is hierarchical—the person with the most authority makes decisions.
- Hierarchy is important, although not always apparent. Defer to the person with the most authority, as they are most likely the decision maker.
- Bargaining is customary and expected. Do not give your best offer at the beginning of negotiations.
- Expect to spend a great deal of time reviewing details before a contract is drawn up.
- Translation from English to Spanish must be accurate and culturally relevant, taking into account the linguistic and cultural nuances of each country.
- Don’t be taken aback by physical closeness.
- Spend more time creating relationship.
- Set an expectation about the speed expected in answering messages.
- To help assure the success of your outsourcing engagement:
Beware of your assumptions, and verify communications — don’t assume you have understood or have been understood.
Marty Pine is a recognized thought leader and an internationally known Global Business Services Professional who has worked as a senior executive in customer, provider and advisor companies. Marty has developed a web blog for the New York Times and About.com on Outsourcing. http://outsourcing.about.com/ and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.