A Deal-Breaker: Understanding Business Etiquette in South Africa

Every country tends to have its own set of etiquette rules and South Africa is no different in that respect, which is why it would be a sound idea to learn the rules of engagement if you want to ensure that you seal the deal.

If you want to avoid offending or alienating a potential business contact unintentionally you probably need to understand some of the following behaviors and social rules that are a part of daily life in South Africa.

An easy way to impress

If you are an English-speaking visitor the good news is that this is the main language of business in the country and it’s considered perfectly normal and acceptable to greet your contact in English.

It always goes down well if you take the trouble to learn a few words of native South African to impress your host with, but a word of warning, it’s best to do your research as there are many variations of the language and using the wrong one might set the meeting off on the wrong foot.

Keep it professional

When you check into a hotel like the Marriott Protea South Africa you will probably be greeted in a professional capacity using your title rather than your first name, which is also the way you should address a business contact when you first meet them.

It is not considered acceptable to use a person’s first name until they invite you to do so, so keep it formal and break the ice before hopefully getting on first-name terms if things go well.

Network in person

The general recipe for business success in South Africa is to establish a personal relationship with your contacts by putting a face to the name.

You will find that most business people in the country are much more open to doing business when they meet you in person compared to speaking with them over the phone or communicating via email.

An old-fashioned face-to-face meeting is often the way to get things done in South Africa, and you can follow up later by email once that personal bond has been established by spending some time in their company.

Punctuality matters

If there is one overriding nugget of advice you need to be mindful of when doing business in the country it is the fact that punctuality is not an option.

This is a culture that places a high value on good timekeeping regardless of whether it is a formal meeting or a more relaxed setting, so don’t risk the prospect of upsetting and even offending someone by not sticking to your agreed schedule.

It is also considered normal protocol to call and confirm the appointment the day before, even if it’s a casual meeting that you have arranged.

Tipping is also fairly widespread in a variety of normal situations like eating out and using porters to help with your luggage. About 5 Rand per item of luggage is suggested and somewhere between 10% to 20% in restaurants is considered good etiquette, which is worth knowing if you want to fit in with the culture and avoid the risk of offending anyone in front of others.