South African Communication Styles

Although a bewildering array of languages and dialects are spoken within South Africa the common business language is English and most people you meet in any international business setting will speak the language – although often with a strong accent which can be difficult to follow on occasion.

You can, however, expect a different usage of the English language depending upon who you are dealing with. Many white South Africans prefer plain-speaking to an overly diplomatic approach and may confuse subtleness and vagueness with lack of commitment or even untrustworthiness. On the other hand, many of the black cultures stress diplomacy in communication and may not want to disappoint the listener by disagreeing openly or admitting that they don’t know the answer to a question.

Humour is an often used communication device and can be used in almost all situations – it is very often used as a tension release mechanism.

On the whole, people are addressed using first names in typical business situations (although when dealing with a driver or a maid, the first name may be preceded by Mr or Mrs – as in Mr Steve or Mrs Susan.) It is also fairly uncommon to use formal titles such as Doctor or Professor in anything other than academic circles.

South Africans are by nature quite tactile and this cuts across the ethnic divides. Back slapping, firm handshakes (often quite lengthy) are common and it can be seen as a sign of aloofness if the foreign visitor backs away from this approach.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in South Africa

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

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If central Africa is poised to take off from an economic perspective then South Africa should be seen as the continent’s engine. South Africa takes on super-power qualities when looked at from an African perspective. South Africa is far and away the largest economy in Africa and the economic health of so many of its neighbours are intrinsically linked with the robustness of South Africa’s commercial sector.

The transition from the previous apartheid-led policies to a fully functioning democracy, offering equal opportunity for all, was never going to be an easy one. The birth pangs of the new rainbow nation are still being felt and political corruption and in-fighting have not helped the process. Nonetheless, South Africa has made significant progress in most areas and, critically, has not descended towards social chaos and economic meltdown as many predicted. South Africa survives and South Africa grows. Its future will be fascinating to watch and its future could, to a large measure, determine the future of Africa.

If you are considering doing business in Africa (and more and more companies are moving into Africa), then it is probably a good idea to do business in South Africa first as a stepping stone to the rest of the continent.

However, South Africa is complex. It is a complex mix of cultures, races, languages and differing approaches to business. You need to be flexible in South Africa and you need to be observant. You need to know that there is no ‘one size fits all’ process that will work in such a complicated environment. Learn about the country before you go on a business trip to – it makes commercial sense to do so (and its fascinating at the same time.)

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of South African business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips