If you’re on a business trip to South Africa, the last thing you want is for an etiquette gaffe to derail your entire agenda. Though many business customs are the same in South Africa as they are in the US, UK, or Europe, there are some subtle differences that it pays to know — literally. Here’s a primer on business etiquette in South Africa, for business travelers — or anyone who is concerned with good manners.
Speak the language: English is the main business language in South Africa, and nearly everyone speaks it as a first or second language. It’s perfectly normal to greet a business contact in English right away. If you do want to impress your counterpart by learning a few phrases in their language, make sure you know exactly which one they speak: South Africa has dozens of languages, and it would be a faux pas to learn the wrong one!
Use titles and surnames: You should not address a business contact by his or her first name unless invited to do so. Until then, use professional titles or Mr/Mrs, and the person’s last name. Don’t use the term “Miss” for a woman whose marital status you are not sure of; doing so may offend her.
Meet in person: You’ll be more successful in business in South Africa if you develop a personal relationship with others. Meeting face-to-face, as opposed to doing business over email or the telephone, will usually earn you better results. After, all that’s why you came to the country, right?
Get an introduction: As a corollary to the previous item, try to get a personal referral if the person or company you want to do business with is not familiar with you. While South Africans will engage with you if they haven’t met you, you may not get access to the key people or decision-makers. So have a trusted third party write a letter of recommendation or personally meet the person you’d like to do business with before you reach out (LinkedIn is great for finding shared connections).
Take it slow with a new contact: Your first meeting with a prospective business partner should be a getting-to-know-you session. No need to dive right into business.
Stick to your schedule: While in some cultures it might be alright to be a half hour late for a meeting, in South Africa punctuality is a virtue. It’s customary to make business appointments at least a month prior to the actual meeting, and you’re expected to call and confirm the day before. No matter the setting—whether it is an office or casual restaurant—be on time.
Dress properly: Men should wear a dark, conservative business suit and women should wear a skirt suit or a modest dress. After the first meeting, you can dress slightly more casually and women can opt for pantsuits. If you opt not to wear a jacket due to warm weather (for example in Johannesburg in summer), be sure to wear a long sleeved-shirt.
Be patient with negotiations: It’s standard for negotiations to take a while in South Africa, so don’t try to rush or pressure the other party. There isn’t an attitude of either party trying to “win” in negotiations, as there often is in the U.S. Rather, you should approach negotiations making it clear you’d like everyone to get the best deal. After a meeting, send a letter summarizing what was discussed, and outline the next steps. You can add a deadline, but be aware that it may be viewed as flexible.
Bring a gift for your host: As in many other countries, it’s customary in South Africa to bring a gift to the host or hostess if you’re invited to their home for dinner. Something in the price range of a bottle of wine, chocolates or flowers is appropriate. Bringing a gift to a business meeting at an office or restaurant is not customary.
Observe mealtime customs: Dinner in someone else’s home requires obedience to South African dinner-party rules: the knife is always kept in the right hand and the fork in left; don’t switch hands or wave your hands around while holding silverware; try to clean your plate, as it’s considered a mild insult to the host if you leave food uneaten; don’t smoke until everyone has finished eating; and don’t converse with the hired help during dinner. If you are a vegetarian, be aware that this might be viewed oddly, as most South Africans are meat enthusiasts. Don’t expect your host to fulfill your personal dietary requirements.
Elders are just as important as superiors: South African society greatly values its elders. If there is an elderly person at your business meeting, even if he or she is not highly ranked in the company or is not a crucial part of the discussion, treat him or her with the utmost respect, as if he or she were a superior. South Africans will not take you seriously as a business partners if you disrespect elders.
Timing: South Africa basically shuts down during the Christmas-New Year period, from mid-December to mid-January. Business also slows considerably during Easter week and around the Jewish holidays in mid-September. So you won’t want to plan business meetings around these times.
Shake on it: It’s good to maintain eye contact when you shake hands with a new business acquaintance. Also, be aware that many South Africans, especially non-white business people, may be more openly affectionate than you are accustomed to. So don’t be surprised if a business partner slaps you on the back playfully, or even holds your hand in a sign of friendship.
Karen Elowitt contributed to this article.