South Africa is a multi-ethnic society with a variety of cultures and languages. The ‘rainbow nation’ features a total of eleven official languages, two of which are of European origin. Afrikaans comes from Dutch. English reflects the legacy of British colonialism and is used in public and business life. The remaining nine official languages are spoken by the largest African ethnic groups, such as the Zulus and the Xhosa.
Most South Africans speak multiple languages and will expect to speak English as the business language. If your English is not up to standard, you should definitely bring your own interpreter.
South African communication styles will vary according to the cultural heritage of your business partner. Many white South Africans tend to express themselves very directly and to get to the point quite quickly during business conversations. On the other hand, black Africans tend to use a more diplomatic, indirect style of communication.
What they share, though, as part of the common South African business culture, is that a harmonious relationship with an interlocutor is a high priority. People strive for consensus and look for a win-win situation. Everyone should be made to feel like they have ‘won’.
That is why people are always friendly in conversations and tend to avoid topics that may cause conflict, or they may even avoid negative answers. Instead of a negative answer, they may provide euphemistic statements which may not necessarily correspond to the facts. Two typical South African phrases are “in two minutes” or “now now”. “I call you back in two minutes” or “I will come back to you now now” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s at the top of the agenda. Often it can even mean that they are not really interested in the matter.
It is therefore important to read between the lines in South Africa, to pay attention to the atmosphere of the conversation and to non-verbal signals. In addition, the ability to interpret the facial expressions of the different ethnic groups correctly comes only after some practice.
Caution with Criticism
Basically, you should not directly criticize your counterpart in South Africa. Make sure also not to criticize someone in front of a group or criticize a third party who is not present. However, there is one exception to this rule: members of formerly disadvantaged ethnic groups in South Africa occasionally may express criticism in a strong and direct manner. However, if you are prepared, you will be able to deal with this appropriately. Take on board the critical words in a kind way and tell them that you will include these suggestions in your decisions. This shows empathy and the ability to accept criticism.
Most South Africans particularly appreciate if you can show some humour and self-irony, or tell little jokes about yourself. Humour is often used to ease non-verbal tensions between interlocutors.
South Africans will keep eye contact in conversation. As older generations are concerned, however, people may avoid the direct gaze of the higher-ranking person as a sign of respect.
In addition, black Africans often stay very close to each other in conversations. If you find the proximity uncomfortable, however, do not retreat immediately. This could be seen as hostile.