Plaza Manuel Belgrano in Buenos Aires

Key Factors When Dealing With Latin America

Interpreters never interpret only language as in interpreting only words. Instead, we interpret meaning. We interpret context. We interpret speakers. We interpret culture.

So here are some of the key cultural factors to keep in mind when dealing with Latin America and Latin Americans – if you allow me to generalise a bit.

Language

Spanish is the continent’s great lingua franca. It is spoken in almost every country, with the exception of Brazil where people speak Portuguese, and a handful of smaller countries such us the French Guiana, whose official language is French.

Just like British and American English are similar but not the same, so are Argentine Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Colombian Spanish and so on. Also, just like there are differences in the language spoken in, let’s say, Manchester and London (and even in different areas of London), there are regional, social, and age differences in the Spanish spoken across Latin America too.

Therefore, it is advisable and highly beneficial to enlist the help of a linguist such as a translator or an interpreter. Business and trade experts recommend trading in the local language as well.

You should also keep in mind that, although about 50% of the population speaks some level of conversational English, you should not expect to be able to run your business smoothly relying solely on your (foreign) language.

Food

Blame it on the millions of Italians and Spaniards that migrated to the continent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the truth is that Latin Americans love their food. If you wish to build stronger bonds, then few moves will pay off as much as sitting down to enjoy a good meal and some nice conversation – even if it is a weekday and your calendar is packed with meetings and things to do.

Latin Americans will want to get to know the person behind the business card. They will want to know you, who you are, what you do, what you like doing in your free time, what you think about this and that. There is no need to get up close and personal. You can discuss sports (football is a continental passion), travelling, and, yes, food. Sharing a couple of anecdotes will go a long way. Trust me.

Personal space

Latin Americans are affectionate. Maybe it is the weather, who knows, but they will get close. Actually, unlike Americans who tend to invade the other person’s personal space when angry and in a fight, a Latin American keeping physical distance most likely is still hesitant and deciding whether they trust you.

Across the ocean, it is very common to greet people with a single kiss on the cheek (usually on the right side), especially among women or men and women greeting each other. In Argentina and Uruguay, even men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek – at work, too!

Do not be surprised if you are asked somewhat rather personal questions such as whether you are married or have any children or get complimented on your clothes and general looks. No hidden agenda. They just want to get to know you better and make you feel appreciated.

Punctuality and time management

I always recall a line from the movie Anna and the King: “Everything in Siam has its own time”. Well, everything in Latin America, too.

Work engagements and meeting are usually kept on schedule. However, public transport and traffic are not always as reliable as in the UK and can become a force majeure, even if someone did indeed leave home with more than sufficient time in advance.

Socially, the general tendency is to arrive a few minutes late (between 15 to 30) to give the hosts time to get ready and catch their breath before welcoming their guests. If things are going well, chances are that the party will go on… and on. Lunches can easily turn into tea (or mate) and it is not unheard of dinner parties lasting well into the wee hours. This is not an imposition or lack of manners by the guests but actually a huge compliment.

Logic of expression

One of my translation teachers at university used to say that Spanish and English (languages) describe reality differently: Spanish tends to start with the end result and then explain the process that led to it whereas English tends to approach reality frame by frame as motion pictures do. I cannot attest to the scientific validity of such claim but I can definitely ascertain that Latin Americans approach reality and present arguments differently than the British.

They tend to use less pleasantries but, paradoxically, are less direct in the sense that they will first explain the logic and the thinking behind the remark they want to make or explain the reasons why they wish to know certain information before making the actual remark or asking for the information.

There is no need to read anything strange into it. Different cultures speak different languages and different languages paint reality in different colours.

There is more to communicating than simply uttering words. Just remember that the first step to a successful and fruitful dialogue is to listen. 

And, if in doubt, you can always ask.

“Latin America is not a geographical unity but a cultural one. As the name hints, it encompasses all countries of “Latin” origin, which means all of those speaking Spanish and Portuguese.”
~Gabriela Castro-Fontoura, The SME Guide to Latin America.

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Key factors when dealing with Latin America

Photo taken by me when I lived in Belgrano in Buenos Aires right before relocating to London.

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