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.
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This World Business Culture profile is designed as an introduction to business culture in South Africa only and a more detailed understanding needs a more in-depth exploration which we can provide through our training and consultancy services.