It is surprising how different norms on the proper greeting method in the business world affect people so strongly. This is especially true when we contrast U.S. and Mexican preferences. Some people will say “hi,” others will take a few seconds and exchange polite talk, such as, “How are you doing today? How is you family?” Some insist on shaking hands, others prefer to greet quickly.
What is a proper way of greeting? From a pragmatic view (which prevails in the U.S.) greetings should be courteous and quick—the work environment is about work, and greeting is a social act that should be minimized in terms of time. A quick “hello” is more than enough in most cases, and when you run into many people every day, greeting everyone is neither necessary nor preferred.
When dealing with U.S./Mexican business interactions, this philosophy just doesn’t work. Mexicans often find it extremely distasteful when U.S. executives show up in Mexico, greet the one or two persons they came to see, and “ignore” everyone else. Furthermore, even the usual quick “hello” common in the U.S. is interpreted in Mexico as insufficient. As anyone living in Mexico knows, greetings here are much more formal and require more time. You should stop, shake hands, and exchange a couple of polite inquiries at the very least. But many executives who are spending only one or two working days in Mexico have very limited time on their hands and find this social requirement to be unrealistic and too demanding.
“Sorry, I know they [Mexicans] don’t like it, but I just don’t have the time,” says a U.S. executive with whom I have worked for a number of years. “If they had the tight schedule I have, they wouldn’t spend so much time greeting people either!” This view is pragmatic and reasonable, right? So what if people don’t like the way you greet them, the important thing is that you get your job done. And why should people be so sensitive about something that is not that important?
Well, what is unimportant to one person is vital to another, and when it comes to greetings, different cultural traditions place a different degree of importance on proper greetings. In Mexico, greeting is extremely important, and no matter how much you would like them to understand that you don’t have the time, you will always get strong negative reactions if you don’t take the time to greet properly.
Why? One of the reasons is that in a culture in which conflicts and anger are communicated indirectly, non-verbal cues are observed and interpreted. For example, if someone walks into the office in Mexico and does not greet everyone well, other people will “interpret” this behavior as meaning one or various of the following possible things: (a) the person is angry, (b) the person is depressed, (c) something happened in the family, (d) something nasty is about to happen.
If the reason for not spending time greeting people is based on a time-conservation concern, the result will be exactly the opposite. In saving a couple of minutes, you have started off on the wrong foot and created a tense work environment. This will make dealings in the future rockier, which in the end will waste time.
Not greeting properly is simply a violation of cultural norms, and one that will not go unnoticed in Mexico. You may think you are saving time by skipping this “formality,” but you have inadvertently damaged a business relationship. Taking the time to greet properly will save you time and certainly a lot of aggravation.