As in many Latin American countries, Colombians generally place high value on personal relationships, in both social and business settings. One of the ways they demonstrate this value is through prolonged greetings in which people ask each other about their health, families, and recent activities. Attempting to shorten this ritual can certainly impact the success of business relationships. Building extra time in to allow for greetings and personal interaction is more than just polite – it makes good business sense.

Traditional Colombian Worldview

Strong Group Orientation
Identity is defined by group; group welfare supersedes individual concerns; interdependence

Although ambitious, winning at all costs is not the general rule; harmony within group is important and there is strong need for consensus.

Relationship Orientation
Interaction takes precedence over time; quality of life is important; people in general both work and play hard, in a spirit of rumbero )

Moderately Hierarchical
Well formed patterns of rank authority; status is well defined; formality is pervasive in public life (especially inland and in the capital city) with considerable inequality of social status and wealth

Strong Need for Certainty
Preference for rules and process. Need for stability; managerial guidance expected; in general, uncomfortable with ambiguous situations

Rules exist but they are flexible and can be bent; reference to context is required to understand a certain situation

Fluid Time
Approach to time is relaxed and flexible, in service of the circumstances, whether business or  social
Strong Group Orientation

Cultural Notes:

  • 4th largest country in South America, with 3rd largest population, with Spanish (castellano) the official language and at least 40 indigenous languages. English is not widely spoken.
  • Through recent efforts to improve economic policy and democratic security strategies, there is increasing confidence in the economic and business sector and hope for the decrease of violence
  • Very diverse geographically, with 3 mountain ranges, two coasts, plains, and jungle

Cultural Assumptions

  • Family is the primary (and extensive) social unit
  • Family representation is prominent in the business community
  • Personal relationships form the basis for success
  • Social stratification is steep and ordered by skin color
  • Catholicism is prominent (90%) and with it a fatalism evident in the phrases Dios quiere (God willing) and Que sea lo que Dios quiera (whatever God wills)
  • Cultural richness  and diversity derives from the mixed ethnicity of the people (58% mestizo—Spanish, indigenous & black; 20% white, 18% Afro-Colombian, 3% black-Amerindian, 1% Amerindian)
  • Status is reinforced with formality as displayed in dress and use of titles
  • Women are very active politically despite strong gender role differentiation

Traditional Colombian Communication Style

Strong support for face  through indirectness and non-confrontation; look for true meaning of “yes” in non-verbal cues

High Context
The context in which the message is conveyed is important; background knowledge is assumed and needed for thorough understanding

Status and hierarchy are important and are considered when speaking; use of last names and formal titles (Señor, Señora, Profesor, Licenciado, Doctor/a—used in respect for seniority, even when not technically true), are common in professional and more formal social contexts

Emotionally Expressive
Display of emotion is common and accepted; Colombians are warm people and tend to get close while speaking;  touching the other’s hand and/or arm while speaking is common

Guidelines for Communicating with Colombians

  • Primarily, learn to engage in and enjoy the drawn out greeting rituals that Colombians are famous for.  Expect questions on your travel, your health, your family, and any common acquaintances.
  • Spend plenty of time building personal relationships, which are the key to your success in Colombia, a country with serious trust issues.
  • Accept social invitations as opportunities to build trust and personal relationships.
  • An interest in food, local sports (fútbol), bullfighting, or the popular music and dance of Colombia will start enthusiastic conversations, as will classical music and literature.
  • Avoid the topics of drugs, terrorism, and politics.
  • The better your Spanish, the greater your opportunity in Colombia.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Colombians engage in elaborate extended greetings. Expect expressive hands and face with excited speech, but more so on the coast than inland.  Beckoning others is done with the palm down and waving the whole hand or just fingers; pointing is impolite.  The closed circle of thumb and forefinger is vulgar, and placing that circle over one’s nose implies that someone is a homosexual. Yawning in pubic is impolite.

Women many clasp forearms in greeting. Handshakes are common between men (not vigorously), with the abrazo (hug) and back slapping between friends and relations; hand are shaken again on departing. Young females may exchange kisses, as may young people of opposite sex. Touching during conversation is not as common as in other South American countries.

Maintaining eye contact and standing close are important; backing away is considered rude.  Distance, however, is greater than in some other South American nations, though closer than in the U.S.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Problems are sent up the hierarchy whenever possible; solutions consider the well-being of the group more than the individuals. Most situations are seen as unique, rather than patterned.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE In the traditional hierarchical business environment, paternalistic concern for subordinates is powerful and generates loyalty, a primary value in any organization.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Generally informal and strictly top-down.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Cooperation and trust more valued than individual initiative. Successful completion of tasks, rather than creative problem solving.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Formal protracted processes, conducted in Spanish, with little sense of urgency. Creation of trust is crucial and negotiations are personal, between individuals, rather than between companies. Change the team, and you start from the beginning, if at all.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Top down; not consultative.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Hierarchy and formality determine the tone and process. Much business is conducted at lunches, which may go on for several hours.
Traditionally hierarchical and paternalistic; generally formal.
HIRING Relationship overshadows resume and loyalty overshadows performance.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Degree of trust and relationship determines priorities in serving customers.