If you’re planning to do business in Latvia, it’s important as a foreigner to learn a little about the country and its customs, especially its customs and attitude towards business meetings and PR.
When in the country you will see many ethnic groups such as Latvians (57.7%), Russians (29.6%), Belarusian (4.1%), Ukrainian (2.7%), Polish (2.5%), Lithuanian (1.4%), and others (2%). The official language is Latvian but most people over the age of 15 speak Russian. Much of the population also speaks English, which is often used by people in government bodies and institutions, travel agencies etc., while German and other European languages are used less frequently. The main religions are: Lutheran (37%), Roman Catholic (33%), Russian Orthodox (17%) and others.
Latvians tend to be very reserved and do not like expressing their emotions in public. They speak little and do not like to beat around the bush. Therefore, it is best to adopt a very straightforward approach when talking to them. Be aware that they might seem like they are intentionally being rude or trying to hurt your feelings, but in truth they are just being honest and saying exactly what they are thinking, and of course, they expect the same from you.
Latvians are usually punctual to meetings and appointments. The Latvian meeting is a fairly formal affair and agendas are followed meticulously through. Business dress is the norm, although business casual is becoming more and more acceptable. Men are advised to wear a dark suit and women could wear either a suit or, a conservative dress. However, Latvians believe the way you dress expresses your position, which is why they prefer expensive clothing, shoes and accessories and women, in particular, are fond of wearing gold jewelry and using strong perfumes.
Since Latvians do not like long meetings, you will be expected to be very well prepared with all the relevant information at your immediate disposal and be able to answer any direct questions on the spot. This material should be purely relevant and succinct. It should also be translated into Latvian. If your presentation is not believable or something makes your potential business partners feel uneasy, they may very easily leave the meeting and cancel further negotiations.
Before your first meeting, keep in mind that gifts are not expected. But small souvenirs from your country such as a small plate with a monument picture, a key holder with a representative historical or natural monument, heraldic signs applied on various small objects or other are well accepted by business associates.
When you arrive to the meeting, you will see how much the Latvian business style follows a hierarchical approach. Major decisions are always made by top management. Even the way the meeting is conducted is a display of rank and position. The most senior Latvian present at the meeting will typically give an opening speech which should then be followed by a speech from the most senior member of the visiting party. Then the first, will direct the meeting and oversee the decision making process. Since decision making comes from ‘the top’, this can make the process fairly slow. Be patient.
When you greet someone handshakes are common, but it’s very important that you shake hands with everyone present at the meeting. People who know each other usually share a brief hug or a kiss on the cheek. After you greet everyone, it is a custom for people who have just met to exchange their business cards. You should score points by having one side of your business card translated into Latvian.
When you address somebody, use their professional or academic title. If they do not have one, then you should use the honorific title of ‘Kungs’ to address a man and ‘Kundze’ to address a woman.
Remember that Latvians are not particularly emotional speakers and they are sometimes perceived by foreigners as being cold or austere on the first meeting. They are also fairly reserved and do not have a problem with ‘awkward silences’. However, they are extremely courteous and think that interrupting others is bad manners. So be sure to give people in meetings enough time to speak their mind and finish what they are saying before you speak.
Despite them always saying what they mean they will control what they say to avoid offending you. Make sure to follow this example and try not to say anything critical of another person either in the meeting or outside. It is also essential to cut to the chase and avoid adorning your intervention. You might see them become very irritated if you add unnecessary information into your speech and fail to speak succinctly and to the point.
Keep in mind that Latvians often use time as a negotiation tactic and so you if you ever have any time restraints you should always make it known to them beforehand, otherwise they might use this to their advantage.