Cultural considerations when doing business in Colombia

If you´re planning on starting a business in Colombia or you´re expanding your operations into the country from abroad, knowing how to bridge the culture gap can seem to be somewhat of a minefield. Successfully gaining clients, building a network, and establishing a positive reputation locally are critical first steps when entering a new market, all of which are made more difficult if you aren’t well versed in the business etiquette of the area. To help you make a great first impression, and avoid any slip-ups, below we’ve included a list of situations and things to bear in mind when doing business in Colombia. 

Meeting and greeting

When meeting anyone for the first time, a smile, strong eye-contact, and a firm handshake are the basics of a customary greeting. You can also expect for the first meeting to begin with a lot of small talk, such as asking you how you are, how things are going, and your impressions of their country. 

Image from an image bank of a balcony with a Colombian flag for an article about considerations when doing business in Colombia.
Establishing a positive reputation locally is a critical step when entering a new market

Once you have met the same people on multiple occasions, greeting will likely become less formal. Of course, this depends on the person you are meeting. However, you will often find that once familiarity has been established, many business people in Latin America take on a warmer disposition that would be more common among friends in other parts of the world, and reciprocating will be well appreciated.

Between men, a more informal handshake or a pat on the arm/back are common examples of how you would expect to be greeted after establishing some rapport. Between men and women, a kiss on the cheek is not uncommon if it isn’t the first meeting. However, it is best not to assume this will be welcome. 

Keep in mind that the influence of the recent COVID-19 pandemic has led many people to feel uncomfortable with a greeting which implies such close contact, so you should greet the other party in whichever way you feel would be most appropriate. Lastly this greeting should also be judged based on the relationship, and in a particularly formal context your greeting should remain formal too.

Finally, when you part ways with the other party you should repeat whichever greeting you began the interaction with, and generally speaking you should not be surprised if a meeting runs slightly later than scheduled.

Business meals and social events

Face-to-face meetings are an important part of doing business in Colombia and having a meal together is a common context for this. These meetings will generally last for around two to three hours and begin with lots of non-business-related conversation. Don’t expect to get straight to the point in terms of the business discussion, as doing so can give the impression that you do not value the time or company of the people you are with. 

Making an effort to engage in friendly table-talk and trying to develop a closer relationship with each of the people in attendance is the best way to use this time, and generally you should leave your Colombian counterparts to initiate the more serious part of the conversation when they are ready.

Colombians also place a lot of weight on manners, so keeping your elbows off the table, avoiding eating with your hands, and being generally courteous are details that your associates will appreciate. 

Lastly, the person to make the invitation is the one who should get the bill. Splitting bills in this context could be viewed as strange or even rude.

Avoid using cultural stereotypes

Colombia’s image continues to suffer from some negative connotations associated with its history of conflict and the influence of popular culture from recent years. Although foreigners may try in good faith to break the ice with their Colombian counterparts by referencing movies or TV shows, a lot of care must be taken not to make reckless remarks about Colombia or its history. 

Locals are already frustrated by the notoriety their country has gained due foreign media, and they do not appreciate lazy stereotypes. To avoid appearing ignorant and creating uncomfortable situations, you should opt to avoid joking about such topics, as many people in Colombia take them very seriously.

You could instead choose to make conversation about the many great things that Colombia is renowned for, such as their delicious coffee, friendly people, hard working culture, or vast biodiversity, to name a few. Kicking off a conversation about a favorable aspect of the country is a great way to get interaction off to a good start, as Colombians tend to appreciate it when foreigners take an active interest in their country and have gotten to know more about its many positive aspects.


Image from an image bank of the Medellin subway for an article about considerations when doing business in Colombia.
Colombians are generally punctual in the context of business meetings, more so in Bogota and Medellin

Although this may seem obvious, it is worthwhile to restate the importance of punctuality. Colombians are generally punctual in the context of business meetings, more so in Bogota and Medellin due to their status as international business hubs of the country. 

As such, you should not arrive late to any business engagement, as this could be interpreted as a failure to value the time of the other people in attendance, as well as giving the impression that you cannot be relied upon. The occasional delay is forgivable, but punctuality should be a top priority.

It’s also possible, however, that you aren´t the one to arrive late. In the case that you are left waiting on someone for a business meeting, it’s best not to make a big deal of it and to accept whatever apology they may make upon arrival. Not only does this avoid creating an uncomfortable atmosphere in the meeting, but if you arrive late to an engagement with the same person in the future, they´re likely to afford you the same understanding.

Dress code 

How you present yourself plays an important part in determining the first impression you will give to the people you´re going to meet. Being well dressed and groomed indicates that you are taking the occasion seriously, and that you are making an effort to show your best self for the others in attendance. 

Dressing well as a man could be wearing a dark colored suit, a smart pair of shoes, and having your hair styled. For a woman, a professional dress or suit is common. Colombians like to dress well generally, so adhering to the norm will certainly help you to start on the right foot.

Another factor to bear in mind when deciding how to dress would be the weather. Considering the unpredictability of the weather in a city like Bogotá, dressing both professionally and practically is important. Wearing a longer professional jacket that would offer some protection from the weather, but a lighter inner layer of clothing prepares you for many eventualities whilst maintaining a professional appearance.

In hotter parts of the country, meanwhile, dressing in lighter or airier clothes is more common. On Colombia’s humid coast, for example, you may find that jackets and/or ties are not expected if a meeting is being held outside, though it is best to take your cues from the people you are meeting.

Learn some Spanish

Many professionals in Colombia already have a good grasp of English due to its importance for doing business and dealing with people from abroad. However, learning some basic Spanish is a great way to show your appreciation of Colombian culture and also your interest in developing a good relationship with associates or potential clients.

By taking time out to study some Spanish and learning some basic greetings, you will not only have a handy way of breaking the ice, but you will demonstrate your commitment to the people with whom you are meeting. 

Picking up some Spanish doesn’t have to involve expensive lessons and taking up a lot of your time, as there are plenty of free options online and apps to download onto your phone, which are often ideal activities to engage in while traveling or during other moments of downtime.

At StartupVC, we work with budding entrepreneurs in the B2B space, contact us today to find out more.

*Lewis McLeod contributed to this article

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends or colleagues!