Networking Latino Style: The Three Unwritten Rules of Networking in Latin America

Networking Latino Style: The Three Unwritten Rules of Networking in Latin America

July 23, 2013

Introduction from Alana: 

In May 2013, I shared a blog post from my friend, Sandeep Kotwal, of Mumbai, India, wherein he shared his perspective on how networking is fostered in his country through its festivals.  At that time, I asked for input from others who had perspectives on networking in countries outside the United States.  I was thrilled to be approached by Arnobio Morelix.

Originally, from Brazil, Arnobio is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas who is spending this summer as a research and policy intern at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.  He is a gifted writer and radiant individual who does a wonderful job of capturing the “unwritten rules” of networking in Latin America and how it differs from the approach to networking in the United States.  I know you will enjoy learning from him.

Again, and if you have personal knowledge of the way networking works in another culture, I would love to hear from you!  Comment on this post or email me at


Guest post from Arnobio Morelix:

In the business world, multicultural understanding is increasingly important. This is particularly true for the relationship between the U.S.A. and the countries of Latin America. Today, three of the top 15 global top trade partners for the U.S.A. are Latin American nations. In addition, one in six Americans are of Hispanic or Latino background, according to the US Census.

Because of that, networking opportunities for these two cultures are increasingly more common. This can be observed in overall migration trends, with the growing Hispanic demographic in the U.S.A.; as well as in specific top-tier business relationships, such as the partnership of Warren Buffet with the Latin American group 3M for the Heinz buyout.

However, there is a caveat. It can be tricky to understand other cultures, and this is undoubtedly true for Latin America. Our culture is full of unwritten rules, and that can make networking in Latin America quite hard for foreigners.

So, to help you navigate the networking scene in Latin America, I created this short field guide explaining the key unwritten rules you will have to understand. In order to do so, I “reverse engineered” my experience as a Brazilian in the U.S., as well as compiled the experience of American friends who have done business in Latin America.

Understanding these unwritten rules will help you make sense of your networking experience in Latin America and, most important, help you establish real, fruitful connections. These three key unwritten rules are: 

  1. Personal bubbles are thinner.  The concept of “personal bubbles” was by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and it explains the distance people need between themselves and the person they are talking with. More formal cultures tend to require more space between the two interlocutors (i.e.: a wider personal bubble), while more informal cultures require less space. If you have ever seen two Latin Americans talking, you might have noticed how different our typical personal bubble is compared to the American one. 

    While in the U.S.A a certain distance between interlocutors is observed, and physical interaction is usually limited to a handshake, Latin Americans behave very differently. Non-spoken communication often includes touching on the back or arms, and very often we replace the traditional handshake with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. 

    Interestingly, the personal bubbles are thinner not only on a physical sense, but also in an emotional one. Latin Americans will tend to be more informal and establish a closer relationship when interacting, including in professional situations.A good friend of mine, an American working in Brazil, told to me that he was puzzled and somewhat amused by his business experience in Brazil. It was his first time meeting his to-be business partner, and before “talking business” he had dinner with his business partner’s family and talked almost exclusively about their personal lives and interests.

    Part of the dynamics of establishing friendship before doing business arises from our historical roots. Because our legal systems are not as developed as the one in the U.S.A., doing businesses with friends is a way of protecting your business from ill-intentioned people.

    When networking in Latin American, don’t be surprised if you get asked about you family or personal hobbies by someone you barely know. This is the Latin American way of going about establishing connections. In addition, while in strictly professional situations the hugs and kisses will be limited, you can expect they won’t be in more social functions, such as going out for coffee or lunch.

  2. Non-verbal communication is huge.  Latin Americans use a ton of non-verbal communication. In addition to the already mentioned physical contact, using hand gestures while talking is very common. Because we use a lot of gestures not found in other countries, it will probably take some time until you can fully use and understand them. In the meantime, the best solution is to ask about specific gestures you don’t know and wait until you get familiar with them.  (Bonus tip: never use the traditionally American “Ok” in Brazil. It is the equivalent flipping someone off, and your interlocutor will not be too happy!)
  3. Time has a flexible definition.  Time runs differently.  Time in Latin America tends to have a different elasticity. While people will be timely in professional situations, that is not quite true for social appointments. If you have ever heard about “island time,” expect to face a similar “Latino time.” 

    People are particularly late for social appointments, such as dinners or parties, and being five to 10 minutes late is considered to be “on time” even for professional situations. Because networking is somewhat in a blurry line between a social and a professional relationship, you can expect people to be a bit lenient with their schedules. 

    I know this uncertainty about schedules is frustrating for foreigners. It is even frustrating for us Latinos who visit home after being adapted to American timeliness. But since we cannot change the whole culture, the best we can do is to recognize it and adapt.

The Solution

I know it is not easy to understand a different culture. But here is the good news: because of all our informality, Latin Americans tend to be very welcoming of foreigners. People will understand you are an outsider, and will mostly do their best to make you feel comfortable.

These three unwritten rules largely boil down to our historical roots and can be summarized in one sentence. Simply put, we are a more informal culture that craves and embraces close human interaction, as any foreign visitor can attest to.

Whenever I feel uneasy abroad, I use one single principle to guide my networking experience. It is based on a saying I learned from my Dad, and I share it here with the hope that it will help you navigate your Latin American experience:

“What we take from life is the life we undertake.”

As long as we are ready to embrace the experience and establish real connections, networking will always be fruitful.

See you some day! For coffee, lunch or coffee.