For many years, HSBC Bank ran a series of advertisements around the theme of cultural differences. Presumably, one reason why the campaign ran for so long was that it touched an important nerve among people using banking systems internationally—i.e. business people. Even if the language is not an issue in a largely English speaking country like South Africa, culture always is.
Style and Language
For the most part, people involved in the business world adopt a fairly formal dress code. Both men and women should normally dress in a conventional way with a business suit or similar, keeping arms and legs covered.
Whatever you wear, it is important that it is clean and well pressed, and that shoes are polished.
South Africans, on the whole, prefer to avoid business jargon. Early meetings are largely a matter of building trust, so don’t expect to move to a deal too soon. They prefer to work towards a mutually agreeable result and will go out of their way to avoid giving offense. An aggressive business style, therefore, is not appreciated, nor is a raised voice.
The use of the terms “black” and “white” is quite normal for South Africans, but visitors may want to avoid drawing attention to racial issues.
South Africans, generally, prefer to do business face to face, rather than through electronic media. They also prefer to make business deals with people who have been introduced to them by a mutual acquaintance.
Punctuality is appreciated but not always practiced in South Africa. If you are heading somewhere for a meeting, allow plenty of time to arrive. Also, allow for the fact that all government departments and most large business premises will have security checks on arrival.
Conversely, if you are inviting business partners to a meeting or meal in your hotel, do not be surprised if they are not on time. Hotels that are out of the center, like the Protea Hotels Fire & Ice by Marriott, are good for business meetings but may take a little longer for visitors to get to.
A handshake is the normal form of greeting. Men meeting women should wait for the woman to extend her hand first.
Always pay courteous attention to a speaker. It is important to maintain eye contact when listening and to nod frequently to show your attention. Never interrupt someone who is talking.
Do not wag your finger when making your case as this can be interpreted as pointing, which is considered rude.
Show particular respect for older people. They are honored in their communities, and showing disrespect would mark you out as a bad business partner.
Domestic servants are a normal part of life. Be courteous towards them, but don’t engage them in conversation in the presence of their employers.
A Good Impression
Making a good first impression is always important in doing business. If you can avoid any cultural pitfalls when you first meet potential business partners in South Africa, you will be well on the way to a productive relationship.