Business people in Mexico will tell you, as most business people will, that business meals are important rituals considered well-spent perks, since often business people work long hours and are away from their families much too often. “It’s the least I should get when I travel,” one of those well-suited managers told me a few weeks ago.
But in Mexico, the business meal is equally important for other reasons. It is, as many know, the place where true business commitments are made – if not in the legal sense, in the mindset of those participating. While enjoying a wonderful Mexican dish (such as those described elsewhere in this issue), or an international delicacy now found in many places in Mexico, the business-meal participants are figuring out whether the other(s) meet their expectations and demands. Not consciously, perhaps, but that is what is going on.
Making a right impression
However, what exactly is it that business people are trying to figure out? Well, in some cultures, they might try to figure out if you really know your business (U.S.), in which case, the conversation is usually around issues directly related to the business at hand. In some other cultures (i.e., France) they may be trying to figure out how “smart” you are, and the conversation might be around a more intellectual topic. In Mexico, on the other hand, one of the things they are trying to figure out is if the other person is trustworthy.
Trust is not about competency, but rather about ethical intentions. Sociologist Francis Fukuyama has argued in his book Trust that nations differ a great deal in how comfortably people feel as they enter a working relationship with others. In High Trust societies, people assume ethical intentions from the other person, and thus can quickly start working together without “watching out” for each other. In countries such as Mexico, considered Low Trust, people enter a new business relationship unsure about the good intentions of the other person. They need to find “proof” that he or she is indeed someone who can “trusted.” In Low Trust societies, the test of trust is the first filter, without which any future endeavors are unlikely to take place.
While trust is both an institutional and personal concern, in Mexico it is the personal trust that matters the most, even in those cases where the company or institution the other person is representing is upheld as important and ethical. In my experience, many non-Mexican business people make the mistake of talking a great deal about the credibility of the company they represent, when often the concern for Mexican business people is how credible they are, as an idividual. Illogical? Not really. While the company may be, as a whole credible, it is nevertheless a complex organization where different customers and/or suppliers get differentiated treatment – different prices, different credit conditions, different amounts of business, and so on. To trust the person representing the company means that through this person I can expect to get the best possible deal and/or conditions offered by the company. A good friend of mine, for example, is a rep for a multinational in Latin America, and over the years he has managed to gain the trust of the various dealers and distributors he serves. “The moment I go with the competition, I can take with me about 90% of my present customers,” he has told me on a number of occasions. How is that? Because other than him, his customers have no one in the company they believe will play fair and watch out for their interests.
So back to the meal. Throughout this ritual, people engage in personal conversations, find out about hobbies and social and religious beliefs, often have a drink or two, and to the extent that everyone is relaxed, we enter a more interpersonal interaction. That is why in Mexico people often do not talk at all about business, but rather about anything else that may help everyone figure out if they can trust each other. Usually, as trust has been built with each other, more wine is usually consumed, and more conversations about business itself start taking place during those business meals.
Trust issues aside, Mexican culture pays much attention to interpersonal skills as a whole. The word “simpático” in Spanish refers to a person who is charming, witty, nice, good-hearted, and so on. It needs to be explained, because there is no direct translation. People use business meals also to establish the warmer interpersonal ties, and that means putting on all the “simpatía” a person can have. This may come from a variety of sources: Knowing about food, joking, paying compliments, listening attentively, adhering strictly to good table and other meal manners, looking as fresh as you sound in the conversation, and inserting selective moments of seriousness and emotionalism.
The point is that by the time desert is served, the person already thinks you are the most fun and most interesting company there is to have for a meal, and that has very little to do with the business connection itself. Let’s face it: Latin business in general, and Mexican in particular, will tell you that this is no longer the case – that Mexico is now a different country and that the new generation of managers is so much more professional than their predecessors were. I could not argue with that. Yet, deep in their hearts, they do find lots of other nationals to be “dry”, “cold,” “without life,” and other adjectives often used in more private discussions to describe those “foreigners.” And let’s face it, also, that they would much rather experience sharing a meal with someone with whom adjectives such as “warm,” “funny”, or something along those lines comes to the top of the mind.
True, today Mexicans will do business with someone “not simpático,” but down the road, the extra mile one might occasionally need from a business contact is less likely to happen if the relationship has not enjoyed a high mark on the “simpatía” scale (and there is one!).
A Mexican meal?
Mexicans hosts will nowadays offer business contacts coming from abroad the opportunity to eat non-Mexican food, because most Mexican business people today have probably seen more than one foreigner react to spicy food or “strange” tastes of Mexican cuisine. However, it would be wrong to say that Mexicans do not enjoy their own cuisine. While certainly Mexican business people tend to over-admire foreign tastes and foreign practices (especially in the business world), they are extremely proud of and immensely enjoy high-quality Mexican cuisine. In my experience, Mexican business people enjoy “showing off” the great food tradition of this country, which as in many other aspects, reflects the best of the mix of the European and Native American tradition of Mexico.