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Cultural Differences

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In the past five years, what US firm hasn't given Columbia some thought? Surges of businesses have considered the possibilities, and many have actually entered the pool. Some start gingerly with small transactions and pilot projects, while others aggressively plunge in with hefty investments right from the start. Still, Columbia is not the ideal market for every product outlet alone every company with exporting objectives. To succeed, you need to appreciate that Columbia is a culturally unique market. To master this market requires patience, research and understanding. Becoming sensitive to Columbian social customs and business etiquette is a small but vital aspect of cross-border deal making. There are five key business practices one must observe in order to conduct business in Columbia: appointments, etiquette, negotiating, and entertaining.

As a foreigner, punctuality is expected from the representative of the company. He or she must be on time for all business appointments, as Colombians are not noted for their punctuality. A Colombian may arrive at a business meeting fifteen or twenty minutes late, yet may feel that she or he is on time. Do not expect them to apologize for being late. Remember that many European and South American countries write the day first, then the month, then the year (i.e., December 3rd, 1999 is written 3.12.99),as is the case in Colombia. Furthermore, schedule appointments at least one week before your arrival. Do not depend upon regular mail service to arrange appointments; use the phone, fax, telex or registered mail.

Unless you are traveling to the coastal lowlands, it is best to arrive a day early so you can adjust to the high altitude. This is especially true in the capital, Bogotб, which is 8,600 feet (2,600 meters) above sea level. Business hours are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. Store hours vary, but are generally from 9:00 am to 12:30 pm, and then from 2:00 pm to 7:00 pm, Monday through Saturday. Banking hours are from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm Monday through Thursday, and from 9:00 am to 3:30 on Friday.

Business cards printed with English on one side and Spanish on the other are most effective. These should be presented with the Spanish side facing your Colombian colleague. Avoid discussing politics, terrorism or illegal drugs in Colombia and avoid drawing unflattering comparisons between the US and Colombia. Do not try to tell Colombians what would be good for their country. Colombians are very proud of their nation and its achievements. It is a good idea to be informed about Colombian culture, literature and history, or (at least) show curiosity about such things. Safe topics of conversation are coffee and emeralds, in which Colombia is a world-class producer.

Positive feedback may be given freely and openly, but direct negative feedback is considered rude. This includes refusing invitations. One should be indirect and slightly evasive so as not to offend. Inland Colombians are among the most formal and traditional people in Latin America. The closer you get to the coast, the more relaxed the manners become. Do not be surprised if Colombians ask why the US is so uncultured and imperialistic. Remember that Panama was once part of Colombia - and would probably be today, were it not for US intervention.

Pay attention to formalities, especially inland. Make your greetings first; then get down to business. Only along the coast does a more relaxed attitude prevail. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to conduct business without hiring a local contact. This contact will not only introduce you to the Colombians you must deal with, but often will pick you up



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