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.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in South Africa. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in South Africa and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: