Even though South African society is multi-ethnic, patience, tolerance and creativity are their prevailing values. The business culture of the population is similar to Western culture: efficiency and competitiveness oriented. However, the main drivers that define South African business etiquette, remain entrepreneurship, personal achievement and cultural sensitivity.
- Primary Contact: South Africans are quite reluctant to communicate with people they’ve never met previously. Therefore, building a business relationship often requires an intermediary to send a formal letter of introduction in advance, in order to guarantee for your trustworthiness. In order to book a primary appointment, it is advised that you book it a couple of months ahead. Also, you should take into consideration summer holidays – December to mid-January – and avoid appointments during this time.
- Punctuality: Generally, punctuality is quite valued within the South African business culture. You should arrive in advance as many companies and public buildings require security checks upon entering the building. Formal meetings usually tend to last as scheduled.
- Greetings: Firm handshakes are the norm within South African business culture, with direct eye-contact with your counterpart. Some women do not shake hands, just nod thus wait for the woman to extend her hand first. When addressing a woman, it is advised to avoid using the term “Miss”. First names are often used but it is advised to wait until you are invited to do so.
- Gifting: The exchange of gifts is not a business habit but it is not unheard of. Gifts are not considered as bribery; thus, you should always accept them.
- Dress-Code: Even if business attire is becoming more casual in many companies, you are expected to be conservative: dark coloured business suits for men and business suits or dresses for women. When business meetings are held on a social basis, it is possible to dress more casually, while remaining quite formal.
- Business Cards: In South Africa, exchanging business cards is a usual practice, takes place during introductions and must be treated with respect. It is polite to compliment your South African contact’s business card.
- Business Meetings: The initial meeting is often used to establish a personal connection and a relationship of trust. In-person meetings are preferred, rather than telephone or Skype appointments. During discussions, it is common to have small talk before proceeding to business matters. Communication will differ depending on who you are dealing with. Most of the time, English-speaking South Africans look for maintaining harmonious business relationships, will be diplomatic and will make their point in an indirect way. Nevertheless, South Africans are more direct communicators. Silence is often a sign that the situation has become uncomfortable. Humour is generally used to ease tensions. During discussions, it is considered impolite to interrupt someone who speaks, as well as showing impatience towards the decision-making process. After a meeting, it is advised to send a letter summarising what has been decided and what the next steps will be.
In conclusion, regardless of cultural background, a good personal relationship often forms the basis of successful business. With clear predefined goals, South African business culture tends to be quite formal, with a direct focus on efficiency.
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