Cultural Tips for Doing Business in South Africa

Aerial view of Johannesburg

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Business travel often shows business travelers just how small the world is, especially when they visit a faraway place for a business meeting, such as South Africa. South Africa is an amazing place to visit for a holiday or vacation (make some time to try one of South Africa's great surfing locations or an itinerary for ten great days in South Africa!). It is increasingly becoming a destination for business travelers.

While much of the basics of conducting business on a business trip is the same, regardless of where you are, there are plenty of other small (and not so small) details and cultural norms that can make a big difference when it comes to closing that deal.

South Africa is a good example of where understanding cultural differences for a business traveler might make the difference between sealing the deal and blowing the deal. For instance, while in South Africa, don't point while talking or talk with your hands in your pockets. Both are considered quite rude. But be ready for some backslapping and even hand-holding, as both are normal in South Africa.

To better understand all the nuances and cultural tips that can help a business traveler heading to South Africa, we interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the book "Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication." Ms. Cotton is an expert on cultural differences and a distinguished speaker and recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. She's also President of Circles Of Excellence, Inc. and has been featured on many television programs.

Tips for Business Travelers Heading to South Africa

  • When doing business in South Africa, keep in mind that the English, the Afrikaners, and the Black Africans all have distinct forms of greeting, and while united as South Africans, each tends to mirror their collective personality.
  • South Africa is the industrial center of Africa and is a key producer of minerals including diamonds, gold, silver, and copper.
  • Any hint of ignorance about the South African domestic or regional political scene will almost surely disqualify you from doing business in this country.
  • With Apartheid gone, South Africa has emerged as one of the most multicultural nations, being composed of British, Afrikaans, Malay, Indian, Zulu, Xhosa, and other Black tribes.
  • South Africa is not a "melting pot," but rather a society composed of various communities and races that remain separate yet integral forces in seeking a new union aspiring to lead and repair the country.
  • English speaking South Africans tend to be reserved, proud of their cultural heritage, have good manners, elegant, expressive speech, and avoid unnecessary conflict. Afrikaners, like their Dutch ancestors, are more direct and to the point and tend to "tell it like it is."
  • Many South Africans are bilingual and speak English and Afrikaans (of Dutch origin).
  • Some South Africans speak English with a heavy accent, as well as in a fast rhythm. You must pay close attention because continually asking people to repeat themselves will eventually be insulting.
  • Introductions are usually orchestrated in order of seniority. South Africans appreciate a good education, so an advanced degree from a well-known University may be referenced in the introduction.
  • Typically, South Africans follow the British style of a polite, formal exchange of handshakes and business card exchanges.
  • Always wait to be asked to sit down. Once seated, expect to be asked a couple of times if you want coffee or tea. It's a good idea to accept, as this provides a break in the formality and allows for the start of some preliminary "small talk."
  • A common interest in sports goes a long way in solidifying the personal side of a business relationship. Casually mentioning that you'd love to see a cricket match or rugby game might just get you an invitation to one.
  • By nature, South Africans are warm, friendly, outgoing people, and conversations can get personal after a relatively brief period of time. They will take a genuine interest in the way of life in your home country and what you think of South Africa.
  • If there is a long period of silence in the course of a conversation, it is a sign that the situation has become awkward, or there is something else that is wrong.
  • In contrast, business discussions are conducted in a cordial manner with quiet voices. A raised voice will be interpreted as an insult. Also, increasing your volume runs the risk of getting you branded as a pushy foreigner more concerned about the "bottom line" than the personal side of a business relationship.
  • South African businesspeople aren't easily impressed with slide presentations. The first meeting is about establishing a personal rapport and deciding if you're a person they can trust. It would be a mistake to expect any instant decisions or deals until the relationship is well established.
  • Keep your presentation short, to the point, and filled with specific ideas related to the particular circumstances of doing business in South Africa. Sometimes, the logistics and financing of the deal are more relevant to South Africans than the actual product or service that you are trying to sell.
  • Generally, South Africans don't like to admit that they don't know an answer. A lot of this tendency has to do with the tradition of hospitality and the desire not to disappoint. Don’t push for an immediate answer, and the correct information will likely be provided to you in the very near future.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Tips

  • Maintaining good eye contact is essential.
  • Talking about sports is an effective way to personalize business. Make the effort to learn about the country's accomplishments in golf, rugby, and cricket
  • A small yet thoughtful gift for your business associates or their families will be greatly appreciated. Personalized gifts are the best.
  • Talking about your home country, as well as your interest in South Africa—it’s diverse and beautiful terrain, rich culture, and wildlife.
  • The evolving racial and social policies are open to discussion, but make sure you are well versed on the topic and don’t impose your views.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Taboos

  • It's impolite to point with your index finger, so use an open hand.
  • Talking with your hands in your pockets is considered rude.
  • When passing through a doorway, it's customary for African men to precede women.
  • Don't initiate or participate in racist or sexist conversations should the topic arise.
  • The "V" or peace sign is the same as giving “someone the finger,” and it's usually punctuated by an upward thrust of the hand.

The Decision-Making and Negotiation Process

The pace of business is somewhat slower and more relaxed when it comes to negotiations and the decision-making process. Being overly aggressive about deadlines will be counterproductive. Avoid the "hard-sell" since that may be perceived as pushy.

In negotiations and decision-making, South Africans strive to build consensus and prefer to see all sides gain something. For the most part, they are ruled by a sense of fair play, and it's rare for them to "haggle" over prices or obsess over details.

Tips on Gestures

South Africans tend to use demonstrative body language when talking. You'll likely experience a lot of handshaking and some backslapping. With friends and close associates, hand-holding is a sign of friendship.

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