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Business Culture: Business Negotiating


Negotiations in Spain tend to be quite formal, with dignity, respect, and courtesy considered crucial elements of any personal presentation. Though the debate may become emotionally heated, it is important to not show anger, and especially to not insult or disparage anyone personally.

In this largely conservative culture, businesspeople tend to follow tried-and-true modes, and are reluctant to take significant risks. It is vital to build a positive relationship with your Spanish partners if you want your negotiations and your eventual deal to proceed successfully.

Goal of Negotiations

Contract Relationship
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Spaniards prefer to do business with people they know, like, and trust. Building a strong relationship is an important prerequisite for beginning business dealings in Spain. It may be a good idea to use a local agent or a mutual connection in order to make initial contact. The sole purpose of the first meeting will be to build rapport. This may involve conversation about your trip, politics, or sports, as well as personal questions about your friends and family. Do not try to rush this process: it is important to let your hosts set the pace. 

Business relationships exist between people rather than between companies. Choose your negotiating team carefully: if you need to replace a team member, you may have to start building a relationship again from scratch.


Win/Lose Win/Win
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Ambition and individualism as character traits are not promoted the way they are in some countries. Do not openly emphasize profit-making, for you will come across as being greedy. Spaniards enjoy the negotiation process, and while they enjoy haggling or bargaining, they prefer to focus on long-term benefits, and will strive for an ultimately win-win outcome. Although the buyer is viewed as having the upper hand, both sides own the responsibility to come to an agreement. A fair price is important to Spaniards, and once the price is negotiated, they will not take kindly to further bargaining. 

Personal Style

Informal Formal
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Business etiquette in Spain is very formal. You should introduce yourself to higher-ranking people first. Introductions are made with brief, firm handshakes. You should address people by their proper title (Señor, Señora, Señorita, Profesor, etc.), followed by their family name. If you are unsure of somebody’s proper title, ask politely about the correct form of address.

Formality is especially expressed through modes of dress. Both men and women are expected to be immaculately dressed in modest, well-cut business suits. Levels of hierarchy must be respected. It is inadvisable to socialize with personnel who are below your station, as people will view you as a lowly intermediary. If you are a senior executive, take the time to meet with the senior executive of the Spanish company, even if it means changing your schedule to do so; otherwise, you will appear uninterested and disrespectful.

Exchanging business cards is an important first step, so bring more than you think you will need. Although most Spanish businesspeople speak English, it will be appreciated if you print a Spanish translation on one side of your card. It is important to include any professional titles and academic qualifications on your card. Be sure to give and accept business cards with a smile, and take a few moments to look at your counterpart’s card. Cards should be put in a cardholder or placed on the table in front of you.

Communication Style

Indirect Direct
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Spaniards dislike confrontation, as they see it as an assault to one’s dignity. They therefore tend to express their real feelings and opinions in an indirect way, leaving the interpretation up to you. Instead of saying no, they will say "I’ll let you know," or mañana, which literally means "tomorrow," but also means "later" or even "indefinitely." Watch out for long pauses, the avoidance of eye contact, or an attempt to change the subject. Silence is not a good sign, as it usually means a reluctance to give an opinion that might be viewed as dissenting or disagreeable. Never humiliate someone by criticizing him or her in public, or by directly disagreeing. 

If you are unsure about what was actually said during a negotiating session, it is best to consult one of the Spanish team-members in private.

Time Sensitivity

Low High
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Spaniards have a very fluid and relaxed approach to time. Meetings usually begin 15 to 30 minutes after the appointed time. Although you should be punctual yourself in order to show the other side that you are serious, expect delays. Going overtime, digressing, and interrupting meetings to take care of something else are common occurrences.

The decision-making process in Spain is slow, compared to in many other countries. Deadlines are not followed as diligently as they are elsewhere in Europe. If your counterparts appear to be stalling, it does not necessarily mean they are considering alternatives or no longer want to do business with you. More often than not, the company decision-making process is simply lengthy, or they may simply want to get to know you better. If you sense that you have not yet gained their trust, concentrate your efforts on building the relationship.


Low High
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Spaniards are very formal and courteous in their manner, but in the heat of debate can become quite animated. They can be very passionate about their stance, and do not like to change their minds, as they consider this to be a sign of weakness. They may engage in skillful rhetoric, exaggeration, and emotional displays to try to get the other side to agree with them. They may interrupt the other team repeatedly, or may raise their voices and gesture strongly with their hands. This behavior is not intended to be aggressive, even though it may come across that way; it is simply passionate engagement.

Risk Taking

Low High
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The Spanish are considered to be conservative about taking risks. If a certain method has been working well for many years, they are reluctant to change, even when evidence suggests that other methods might serve their company better. They prefer to take the path with the highest likelihood of success, even if there may be fewer rewards, because their corporate image has overriding importance and must not be jeopardized. A high-risk proposal, even with the promise of many rewards, is not worth the potential loss of face.

Team Organization

One Leader Consensus
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The business hierarchy in Spanish companies is autocratic, with one key person or a few key people making all the decisions. Many small- and medium-sized businesses are family-run, and senior positions are attained through personal status and connections, rather than through ambition and personal achievement.

Personnel tend to be highly compartmentalized, and relations between each rank are well defined. During a negotiating session, the senior team leader will allow his or her subordinates to respond to points raised by the other side, before stepping in to clarify the company’s position. The decision maker will usually base decisions on reports submitted by mid-level managers or by different departments.

Agreement-Building Process

Principles Details
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Spaniards prefer a holistic approach to agreement building, focusing on multiple items and goals at once. They will jump among items and may reiterate and revisit things that have already been agreed upon. This may cause considerable frustration to people from countries that are more used to a step-by-step approach. It is important not to express anger or frustration. This approach can work to your advantage, as you can also use the opportunity to revisit items as negotiations progress. You can also specify that agreements on certain items are contingent on agreement about other items first.

Agreement Form

General Specific
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During the initial stages of negotiating, Spaniards tend not to dwell on the details, preferring to go over specifics later. Once they arrive at the point of formulating a written agreement, Spaniards prefer long, detailed contracts that cover every facet and eventuality. It is best to let your lawyers work out the fine print of the agreement with the Spanish company’s attorneys, but be sure to be present when the contract is being drawn up in order to be able to ask the other side questions. Despite this emphasis on lengthy contracts, however, the relationship always forms the basis of a strong business deal. Do not become irritated if the process of creating the contract is protracted. Remember to preserve the relationship, for ultimately it will stand you in better stead than the most detailed contract.

The assessments detailed in this article are intended for informational purposes only. They reflect typical attitudes within a given country or culture, and are not intended to describe any specific individual or business. World Trade Press is not responsible for any action taken on the basis of the information contained herein.

World Trade Press would like to acknowledge the research of Jeswald W. Salacuse (“Ten Ways That Culture Affects Negotiating Style: Some Survey Results,” Negotiation Journal, July 1998, Plenum Publishing Corporation) as the basis, with modifications, for the assessment categories described in this article.