Meetings and behavior in business context in Mexico
Why should I read this document?
If you are looking to establish successful business relationships in Mexico, this document offers some key guidelines on how to navigate key cultural aspects, and show up in a way that is conducive to effective meetings.
5 most important things to know about doing business in Mexico
Mexico is a land of hospitality - people will want you to feel welcome. Don’t take this for granted, though. Reciprocity is what will truly help advance any relationship, and make meetings productive.
Always allow your counterparts to express what they want or what they think. Make an honest attempt to satisfy their needs, to the degree that it is possible.
Practice your ‘reading-between-the-lines’ skills. Keep in mind that Mexico is a hierarchical, collectivistic and uncertainty-avoiding culture, i.e. people will often need reassurance that they can trust you, and they will tend to communicate things indirectly (including requests).
Be prepared for long breakfasts, long lunches and/or long dinners (or meetings that run over time for that matter) - this is business as usual in Mexico. And don’t be surprised if you’re invited to someone’s home; it may in fact be a good sign (just make sure not to show up empty-handed).
Have the decision-makers clearly identified and act with consideration to their position of authority, especially when their subordinates are also present.
How should you communicate?
Always be (and sound) cordial. Saying please and thank you is considered an essential component of any human interaction. Make sure to properly greet people when you arrive and when you leave (suggestion: learn a variety of hellos and goodbyes in Spanish). Broadly speaking, it is always recommended to begin a meeting with some small talk, sharing something personal and/or allowing the other parties to do the same. As a general guideline, personal connection comes first, business dealings come second.
Mexicans also appreciate tradition and formality, especially when dealing with someone they don’t know well yet. As a rule of thumb, it is best to address anyone you have not yet established rapport with, especially if they are of higher professional rank or a government official, by “usted” (the formal version of you). Using “tú” (the informal version of you) is acceptable once a relationship has been established, or when you have been given express consent to do so. Titles are very important. If someone is an engineer, their business card or email signature will usually indicate it, or they will be properly introduced by someone else as such. Same goes for a doctor, professor, or even someone with an undergraduate degree (referred to as “licenciado” or “licenciada”). One way or another, you will be made aware of people’s titles, so make sure to catch the ‘hint’. It’s considered good manners to address them accordingly at first contact, whether in writing, video conference or in person (especially if the language being used is Spanish).
How can you make a good impression?
Foreigners are usually welcome in any setting, but they can also be treated with suspicion. It is helpful to identify and discuss topics of common interest (e.g. sports, family, food, etc.), in order to help break the ice. Showing basic knowledge of (and respect for) national symbols, traditions, monuments and/or heroes (e.g. national soccer team) can help you score valuable points. Find opportunities to recognize Mexican people and their culture whenever you can (e.g. the arts, the architecture, the cuisine, the ingenuity, etc). Mexicans are very proud (and men are supposed to be macho), hence they cannot cope well with direct criticism, especially if it comes from an American or European (largely because it triggers bad memories of colonization). Also, being on time is a very flexible concept for Mexicans, but it is usually unwise to arrive at a meeting after the boss or client (the power holder), or leave your host waiting. To be on the safe side, you should arrive first (even if it’s a Zoom call) - it will likely play in your favor.
What will you wear?
Mexico is a very class-conscious society and appearances matter a lot (high Power Distance culture), particularly in large urban/business centers such as Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara. Your clothes, hairstyle and accessories - even the vehicle in which you arrive, will tend to be critically appraised by your local counterparts. Both men and women should dress conservatively in business contexts (though in some sectors, and coastal towns, it is more accepted to dress business casual - you should ask before you go). Ideally nothing bright; black, brown and some dark colours (maybe navy blue) is o.k., nothing flamboyant. That said, some color highlights (e.g. shirt, tie) are well received - Mexican culture is very creative and artistic. Women, for instance, should always wear some make-up.
Where do you meet?
Where you meet depends on the power relation between you and the individual/s you want to meet. If you seek to meet a potential client, it is best to offer to go to their office, whereas, if it is a potential partner you seek to meet, you would meet in either of your offices or a neutral location like a restaurant. That said, once the relationship is established, inviting clients or business partners to one’s office is a great opportunity to show them your hospitality. AND always keep in mind that, for better or worse, there is such a thing as “home-field advantage”.
Where do you position yourself?
First impressions matter a lot. You should signal your position in the hierarchy from the start. Your first meeting should be with someone who is at least at your level of authority and/or just slightly above it. Once ready for a meeting farther up the ranks, you should have your supervisor make the arrangements directly or through an assistant, and attend the meeting, of course. Things will move a lot more slowly (and very likely hit a dead end) if you attempt a bottom-up approach, whether the goal is to sell or negotiate something, or even schedule a simple meeting. Also, be mindful of who sits where and who speaks when during the meeting, if people of all levels are represented (i.e. cadets, lieutenants and generals).
How to follow up?
Be prepared to have to follow up quite a bit on commitments and promises made in meetings. Just like punctuality, deliverables and deadlines can be subject to interpretation. It is highly advisable to write up conference/call reports, yet don’t expect the document to magically move things forward. Your persistence will be a measure of your own level of seriousness and commitment. Your kindness will be a measure of your integrity and leadership.
How are you expected to behave?
As in most Latin American cultures, physical touch is commonplace (handshakes, hugs, taps on the shoulder, etc.), even in the office. Expect to shake hands with everyone you meet, anytime. (Note: this might obviously not be the case during the Covid-19 pandemic but it is otherwise the social norm). Women kiss on the cheek when greeting each other, and so do women and men, though it is advisable to allow her to initiate contact when meeting for the first time. Though Mexico has become much more progressive in recent years, some Mexican businessmen may still not have had many dealings with women in positions of authority. If you are a woman, be gracious in accepting compliments, even when these are somewhat flirtatious, while at the same time demonstrating your competence and professionalism, and reminding your counterparts that you are there to do business. In general, one should try to maintain an open and relaxed body posture when meeting with other people. Avoid standing with crossed arms or hands on your hips, as this might be perceived as a sign of aggression or intimidation. A friendly and natural smile can go a long way in Mexico.
How to make a graceful exit?
To say goodbye, it is considered appropriate to observe the ritual of saying out loud that you are leaving, so most of the people at the meeting notice. Then you should shake hands or kiss on the cheek with all the members of the group (if it is a small group). Remember, men shake hands with men and men and women kiss on the cheek with women (only if this was done also as a greeting). If you cannot reach everyone, at least carry out the goodbye formalities with the power holders or decision-makers and the host. Never leave a meeting by just saying goodbye and immediately leaving the room as this will be perceived as rude. In case you need to leave quickly for another meeting, be sure to mention it beforehand.
Short case study
A young German account executive in Mexico City had been working on a long-term brand strategic plan for one of his clients, an up-and-coming local Telecom. He was truly excited to share his ideas with the client and set up a meeting with the team of brand managers. When he arrived at the client’s office (by himself), one of the brand managers greeted him at the front desk and revealed that they had been speaking to the SVP of Marketing in the morning and he’d decided that he wanted to be in the meeting, too. Confident that he had a good story to tell and that he had done his homework, the account executive didn’t hesitate to walk into the conference room and begin his presentation. About ten minutes into it, the Marketing SVP interrupted and began expressing a few concerns and disagreements. The account executive had been working on this for several weeks and understood the challenges well. He had thought through all those issues before, and swiftly addressed them with intelligent arguments on the spot. The brand managers, and one of the assistants who was also present, remained silent. Their boss interrupted once again with a question: “How long have you been in Mexico, young man?”
What do you think was the final outcome of the meeting, and why?
If you had been in the account executive’s shoes, what could you have done differently?
References and interesting links