Any article entitled ´Working with the Spanish’ will get into stormy waters if it attempts blanket coverage of the Iberian Peninsula and this is no truer than for the proud Basque people who inhabit the rugged coasts of the North.
Just like the English ‘go on holiday to Europe’ so the Basques ‘go on holiday to Spain’ and in the public Basque-speaking schools (Ikastolas) more hours of English are taught than Spanish! Although business with the Basques usually takes place in either the English or Spanish languages, the Basques do NOT see themselves as Spanish (the World Cup excluded) and this is often the first cultural faux pas to be made!
Naturally, generalisations can be made and a love of food and wine, family and friends can be found throughout the Mediterranean lands, but the Basques are not Latins and business with the Basques is quite a different kettle of fish than with the more extrovert Spaniards of the South.
Business in the Basque country is informal and non-hierarchical
From a British point of view, the Basque reserve and informality are easy to relate to. The Basque dress code is usually relaxed and understated, and any overt display of status or position does not impress. Historically, the Basque culture has always tended towards democracy and a flat social hierarchy which is also reflected in the language they use. When speaking Spanish the informal use of ‘tu’ to address your colleagues and business partners is used far more in the north of Spain than in the south, where echoes of a feudal past can still be discerned in the more formal and commonly-used ‘Usted’.
Are the Basques on time?
I can hear the reply of ‘mañana, mañana’ but NO, don’t be taken in and don’t take the mañana system for granted when heading off for appointments in San Sebastian or Bilbao. Although the timing may be slightly more relaxed than we know it in Britain, the Basques tend to be refreshingly punctual and to the point. One notable difference is that in Britain we like to fill up our posh leather agendas weeks, if not months in advance. Trying to nail down a Basque (or Spanish) business partner for a meeting too far ahead of time may do little more than bemuse their shorter-term mind sets. In these your partner will quite often ask you to call to make an appointment when you arrive in town and then fit you in in the next couple of days.
This helps me make another point about formal and informal systems. In the Basque country there is a very reliable formal system where your word is your honour and a date is a date. However, when plans go astray for whatever reason you will find that the Basques can be very flexible too and that a few phone calls later appointments can be changed, dates and venues can be swapped, and the new plans will be equally reliable as the old ones. Having run a business in the Basque Country for over a decade these two systems allow a refreshing mix of security and flexibility.
My word is my honour
The Basque culture has a strong oral tradition where people are expected to honour their word and, on the whole, the system still works. Basques like to show trust and like to feel trusted and for many Basque shaking your hand on a deal is as binding as any written document. Nevertheless, there is a naturally a fine line between leaving yourself wide-open and nailing down every detail of an agreement in writing, but do at least be sensitive to this deeply-seated Basque code of honour.
Money is always a quagmire of cultural differences and, in the Basque Country (and Spain as a whole), talk about money and pricing are usually introduced towards the ends of conversations. If a client does hand you over cash then he may feel offended if you sit down and count out the notes in front of him. If you do have to check, be discreet.
However, there is no better demonstration of this code of honour than in the bustling tapas (pintxo) bars of San Sebastian. With the bar tops laden high with colourful plates of pintxos you are invited to spend the evening grazing, helping yourself to one after the other , ordering a glass of ‘tinto’ or a bottle of ‘Txakoli’, (and then perhaps a couple more pintxos to round off the day). Hours may pass before you nudge through the crowd to get the bill from the waiter who, more often than not, will only have your word as to how many pintxos and drinks have passed your way.
Business and Socialising
From my experience the Basques do not like to mix business and pleasure. It is either one or the other and the idea of working breakfasts or lunches is generally anathema to them. If you are asked out to lunch by your business colleagues then more often than not the content of the lunchtime conversations should be kept to general social topics such as family, Basque culture, wine, food and football etc. If you have any Basque contacts or business colleagues in common then showing that you are already part of an inner circle is also a clever step to make. However, if strict business talk is absolutely necessary don’t let it creep into conversation until the coffee is served.
Likewise, during meetings, it may feel natural for Northern Europeans to take coffee breaks and saunter back into the meeting room cup of coffee in hand, whereas for the Basques this seemingly innocent act could be interpreted as a lack of seriousness and respect. Food and work just don’t mix. (This attitude to business is a far cry from that of the Danes, Barry Tomalin * and I worked with in Copenhagen. Here, they would start the morning training sessions with ‘hyggelit’ cakes and coffees but would be talking about numbers and prices before they had had time to wipe the crumbs off their business plans!)
* I have had the great honour to work with Barry Tomalin in Cross-cultural Awareness Training over the years. Barry is a writer, author and public speaker who is now the director of Cultural training at International House in London and lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. His book ‘The World’s Business Cultures and how to Unlock Them’ is well worth a read. See his website at www.culture-training.com.