Monday, March 27, 2006
Doing Business in Mexico – Cultural Differences
By Ignacio Hernandez
(The following is a speech given by Ignacio Hernández, President of MexGrocer.com, who was invited to speak before a food industry convention held in Coronado, California.)
For many years I have considered the development
of business relations between the United States and Mexico of the utmost importance. And as business necessarily involves
understanding among individuals, when cultural differences exist the task of successfully working together can become even
more difficult than usual.
I have considerable experience in doing business
in Mexico, between American and Mexican executives, and over the years I have identified a number of practical concerns. Factors
and differences that, if ignored, can result in maybe an amusing situation, but more likely missed business opportunities.
Take for example a typical “deal making”
session between businesspersons from the two countries. This conversation will likely occur between two high-ranking executives,
as Mexicans tend to make business deals at the highest levels.
The average Mexican business executive will spend
most of the time discussing general topics, waiting for the final moments of conversation to bring up the matter at hand.
Yet in the “every second counts” mentality of the U.S., light conversation like this is often viewed as an expensive
waste of time.
In Mexico’s typical business culture meetings
start off slowly, with Mexican businessmen exhibiting behavior that is gentle and compromising as they warm up to the actual
topics and purpose of the meeting. As well, in Mexico there is a considerable gap between the executive level and the various
levels of the rest of the company, causing the executive who well may agree with you to mentally translate how the rest of
the corporation can and will execute. There is a sizable downshift process from top management levels to the execution levels
Let me outline a few of the problems an American
businessperson might face in setting up a meeting with a Mexican contact. When making a phone call to Mexico, it is relatively
difficult to establish first contact. In addition, once contact is made it is customary for several secretaries to “process”
the call prior to reaching the intended person. For this reason, I recommend obtaining a phone number for the executive’s
direct line whenever possible. It is also helpful, since cellular phones are very important in Mexico, to obtain your contact’s
The initial call rapport is very important, and
if someone is helping you that person must speak fluent Spanish in order not to become discouraged. Do no expect to have the
executive secretary answer the phone unless you called his or her direct line, plus whatever the case be patient.
Patience is very important in U.S.-Mexico relations!
The American must be conscious of the time zone
and time of day he or she is calling. The typical Mexican business day starts at 9:00 am and ends at 7:00 pm. While this is
similar to the U.S. business day, one part is quite different. We take very long lunches. The Mexican business day is interrupted
by a two-hour lunch, usually between the hours of 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm. This is a custom that has existed for decades and is
not likely to change overnight.
If the U.S. businessperson is unable to contact his
or her Mexican counterpart and is only able to leave messages, it is not likely – at least by Mexican standards –
that calls or messages left will be returned. In most cases Mexicans tend to think that if a call is important it will be
placed again. If the Mexican and American businesspersons have, upon crossing these boundaries, been able to set up a meeting
time there are a few more problems that might be encountered.
If the Mexican writes to confirm the meeting,
on for example 3/4/06, he or she is expecting to meet on April 3, 2006. This will create some difficulties when the American
arrives for the meeting on March 4, 2006. Remember that in the United States the month is first, whereas in Mexico the day
of the month comes first.
The U.S. businessperson might also experience
a problem if he or she has scheduled a dinner meeting. Dinner for Mexicans often occurs at 9:00 pm, not the typical U.S. time
of 6:00 pm or 7:00 pm. For reference purposes, other meals generally occur at 8:30 am for breakfast, and 2:00 pm for lunch.
So now the U.S. businessperson is actually in
Mexico City, to visit lets say Corco S.A. de C.V. First he or she must get adjusted to the change in altitude, for Mexico
City is over 7,300 feet above sea level. I have noticed in the past that this change can be very exhausting, and thus I recommend
that you allow at least one first free night of conditioning time to account for possible weariness.
Transportation is of some interest in Mexico.
When hiring a taxi, do not accept transportation from private individuals soliciting patrons within the airport. Always use
obviously professional transportation services. If taking a cab, please note that in most cases you will not have the advantage
of a running meter to know the cost. Always ask the price prior to accepting the ride. Once a price has been given though,
it is safe to assume that this will be the final fee upon arrival.
Also of note is the situation in Mexico City
when driving a car. In an effort to combat air pollution, Mexican authorities limit the use of vehicles to four days during
the workweek, with a temporary imposed reduction at times limiting driving to three workweek days. The system is based upon
license plate numbers. If renting a car, it is thus helpful to ask if it can actually be driven during your stay in Mexico
City, and if so on what day or days of the week might its use be prohibited. I recommend always using taxis in Mexico City
to avoid this problem.
Due in part to the difficulties of traffic, Mexican
businessmen and women are customarily late for a scheduled appointment, usually by 15 to 30 minutes – yet it can be
even more. This scheduling difference should be taken into account, particularly when arranging a meeting within Mexico City.
Also note that, after years of “being late,” Mexican business persons do not hold much stock in making an agreed
upon meeting time.
In the United States it has become customary
to use an associate’s first name within minutes of the initial meeting. Mexicans on the other hand are not pleased with
being addressed so casually, and they will wait for your invitation to use a first name.
Of course there will be some language difficulties.
Even though most Mexican businesspersons have learned a little of the English business language, they do retain Spanish language
speech patterns. Mexicans tend to invert phrases in English. For example I might say to you, “The budget of my company
we have completed for 2006,” rather than “We have the 2006 budget for my company completed.” The meaning
is always there, but you must listen carefully.
Mexicans also tend to attach the word “no”
to the end of a comment, seemingly turning each statement into a question (isn't it?). Many statements are not actually questions
and can be identified as such by body language common to both countries.
A Mexican will occasionally ask a question which
seems to degrade something of value to him or her. For instance, he or she might say, “Our city here is quite dirty,
no?” The correct response is not “it sure is!” One should respond to such a phrase with an opposite reply,
such as “no, I find Mexico City very nice.”
We must always try to be conscious of what another
individual actually means by a comment. As I have mentioned, this can often be achieved by watching body language. For the
most part this remains consistent through out the world.
Once a deal has been struck, then the daily interaction
between the countries will begin. This is not to say however that things will be easier.
Distribution differences between the two countries
will certainly play a large part. Take for instance some of these cultural differences: Mexican businesses do not place an
emphasis on actual delivery dates. In fact, it is customary to tell a purchaser that the order will arrive “sometime
next week.” This practice runs contrary to the U.S. standard of providing delivery times almost to the exact hour, day
and gate number.
Remember too that long delays can occur due to
lengthy holiday periods which Mexico is accustomed to, especially during religious off work periods like Christmas, Semana
Santa (Holy Week – the week before Easter), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), Mother's Day (Dia de las Madres is always May 10th in Mexico), Day of the Dead (November 2), All Kings Day (January 6, Dia de los Reyes Magos), etc. If one of these holidays falls on say a Wednesday your shipment might not leave until the
next Monday. Which is not too bad considering you must allow for even more off time during the Christmas and New Year’s
In Mexico long weekends, or long off work periods,
are called “puentes” (bridges), and there is a joke that the longest bridge in Mexico is the “Puente Guadalupe
Reyes.” This because it runs from December 12th, the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to All King’s Day on January
6th. And the fact is almost everything slows down over this holiday span.
When delivery problems do occur, Mexican managers
often say, “it will be taken care of,” offering no further explanations. Such a situation in the United States
can result in loss of continuity, acceptance and possibly removal of shelf space within the trade, and is usually addressed
with “the delivery problem will be taken care of and this is how….”
Mexican and American companies can develop profitable
business relationships but we must work closely to develop and maintain them. As well, the cultural differences between the
two countries that I have described go well beyond just having different languages.
In Mexico, when you are finishing something and
almost out of time you say: “I am finishing at 5 to 12” (cinco para las doce). Whereas if I were an American businessman,
I would say that “I am finishing in the eleventh hour.” As you can see Mexicans appreciate time differently –
we still have time to wait until almost midnight.
I am sure that more and more U.S.-Mexico business
relationships are leading us on the right path, and that together if we trust each other, if we take advantage of our strengths
and overcome our weaknesses, we can gain great economic and social benefits. Advantages and benefits that are not as easily
gained with the European community or Pacific Rim nations. Above all, Mexico should not simply be a distant neighbor of the
U.S., for it must continue its march towards a more prosperous and stable future.
I hope that I have been able to properly convey
my message – that what works in Mexico does not necessarily work in the United States and vice versa. Yet with a little
understanding on and by both sides it is not hard at all for us to work together and prosper.
And I most certainly hope that, by acknowledging
and forging through basic cultural nuances, interaction between U.S. and Mexican businesspersons and entrepreneurs will continue
to flourish and grow.
MexGrocer.com is a nationwide bilingual online grocery store for hard-to-find, non-perishable authentic Mexican
food, cooking tips, Mexican recipes and Mexican cookbooks.
Ignacio Hernandez is the founder and president of MexGrocer.com. With more than 30 years of experience
in the Mexican food industry, he has represented a number of Mexican companies and products in the U.S. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.