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Mexico is a country whose rich culture permeates all aspects of life, especially business. Expats wanting to do business in Mexico should consider the cultural nuances of the business climate, or they might risk being caught off guard, offending potential associates or even missing out on various business opportunities.
The country offers a friendly and hospitable business environment, ranking 60th out of 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. It ranked particularly well for getting credit (11th) although ranked lower on paying taxes (120th) and starting a business (107th).
When relocating to any country, getting familiar with local customs may take time, but understanding the basics is fundamental when doing business in Mexico.
Although many Mexican business people speak perfect English, Spanish is the official language of business. Learning a few choice words and phrases will go a long way toward getting to know associates. Formal pronouns for you (usted instead of tú) should be used in professional settings.
Hours of business
Businesses usually run from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, with a two- or three-hour siesta in the early afternoon. This may vary across types of businesses.
The dress code for the Mexican business world is smart and formal, with an emphasis on style. Men wear ties, dark colours and accessories, and the basic assumption is that people endeavour to look as good as they can. Women also dress smartly and stylishly (business suits are widely worn) and often go to work in high heels and make-up.
Business greetings in Mexico are usually a handshake with a slight bow. It is important to use someone's title when greeting them as it is a sign of status and highly valued in Mexico. Someone without a title should be referred to as Señor (Mr) or Señora (Mrs), followed by their last name.
Gifts are not usually given at business meetings, though a small token of sincerity might be appreciated. Expats invited to a colleague's home should take along some wine, sweets or flowers, but should avoid red petals and marigolds.
Women are ostensibly treated as equals in the Mexican business world, often rising to senior positions. Nevertheless, business in Mexico can still follow paternalistic patterns, and the presence of machismo in the workplace is, regrettably, a reality that many expat women deal with.
Business culture in Mexico
The defining characteristic of business culture in Mexico is that successful, productive business relationships are invariably built upon personal trust and familiarity between individuals.
In Mexico, business is ideally conducted face to face and among people who know and trust each other. If at all possible, we recommend expats try to network and organise their initial introduction to a potential business partner through an existing contact. Due to this interpersonal approach, business in Mexico can often proceed slowly, with people tending to take time to establish personal relationships before getting down to negotiations.
Even though management structures in Mexico remain hierarchical, business etiquette is marked by a combination of formality and genuine warmth, friendliness and openness between individuals. Executive company decisions are always made by the person in the highest authority, yet junior employees are also encouraged to share their opinions during meetings and engage in debate.
Expats should use titles and formal pronouns until explicitly instructed not to do so, but should not shrink away from engaging in personal discussions with their colleagues. In Mexico, a person’s qualifications, expertise and work experience – as important as they are – will not serve them as well as their ability to develop personal relationships with associates.
Business meetings must be scheduled in advance and then confirmed a few days before they take place. Expats need to be punctual while bearing in mind that their hosts might not show the same courtesy in return. This is more the case in informal settings than in professional ones, and the meaning of time is a key issue in Mexican culture. Meetings often begin with small-talk – this is to encourage people to get to know each other – and will proceed at the pace determined by the important role players present.
Expats should bear in mind that, in Mexico, it is very rare to hear the word 'no' being used in a direct or confrontational way. Direct refusals are seen as rude; and if someone doesn't like an idea, a gentler, more diplomatic expression, such as 'Let me think about it' is usually used.
Displays of emotion are common during business meetings in Mexico. These might be uncomfortable to witness at first but are regarded positively in the Mexican workplace. Emotions are considered illustrations of emphasis, engagement and passion.
Business cards are swapped frequently in Mexico. Expats should make sure that one side of their card is translated into Spanish, with this side facing up when the card is handed over. Professional qualifications are often listed on business cards.
Attitude toward foreigners
Mexico is a friendly, welcoming place to do business – and foreigners shouldn't experience much difficulty assimilating themselves into Mexican corporate culture. Expats should bear in mind, though, that not being able to speak Spanish will alienate them from the general public. In some areas of the country, Americans have been known to be treated with suspicion and even hostility. There are political tensions between these countries, and expats should make an effort to understand the language and culture.
Dos and don'ts of doing business in Mexico
Do be willing to invest in personal relationships with colleagues
Do learn to relax and to take things as they come
Do learn Spanish – Mexico's culture will offer itself up to those who do
Don't be impatient, pushy or rude. Let things develop at their own pace.
Don't be blasphemous, especially during business meetings
Don't feel frustrated if good ideas are not used immediately. Mexican business people are open-minded but may be slow to change their ways