Body language and language of communication in Bulgaria
The first thing you should know when communicating with a Bulgarian person (businessman or not) is the head gestures for “yes” and “no”. Bulgarians shake their heads horizontally for “yes”, but they nod their heads vertically when they want to say “no”. In case you find this confusing it is best to give a verbal answer with “da” for “yes” and “ne” for “no”.
Nowadays, most Bulgarian business representatives speak English, French or German. Still, it is best to hire an interpreter when doing business in Bulgaria.
Bulgarians greet with a handshake both in the beginning and at the end of a business meeting. When you enter a room, you should greet everyone with a firm handshake. If you have a well established relationship with a person a kiss on both cheeks is accepted even for men.
Often, Bulgarians do not explicitly express what they mean. Even though they tend to be direct, sometimes you have to observe their posture, gestures and body language in general to understand what they are really implying. They also use hand gestures when they speak, so you should follow those too.
In some cases it is useful to ask the same question in different ways, just to check if the response changes.
Dress code and business meeting protocol
The dress code for business meetings in Bulgaria does not differ from the Western norm; a suit for men, suits, formal dresses, skirt suits for women. Of course, it depends on the industry you are working in. In some cases less formal clothing is acceptable. In any case, avoid revealing or provocative clothes.
If you want to meet with your Bulgarian business partner(s) it is best that you call their office in advance and ask when they will be available. If you go to the office unannounced, it is possible that you may not find the person you are looking for there.
Once you have appointed a meeting, you should be on time. Bulgarians are less strict about punctuality than some Western European cultures, being about 10-15 minutes late is acceptable.
Business cards are exchanged at the beginning of the meeting. It is advisable that you keep the cards you received in front of you during the meeting so that you can address all the present people with their respective titles and names. The accepted norm is that you address a person with Mr/Mrs and their last name until you are asked to call them just by their first name.
Maintaining eye contact is considered a sign of sincerity so try and keep eye contact with as many people in the room as possible.
The first meeting with a Bulgarian partner will be used to get to know you, so don’t expect decision making. In general, Bulgarians prefer to take their time when dealing with (important) decisions. Also, keep in mind that they are not very deadline oriented, especially compared to most Western cultures.
Don’t be surprised if Bulgarians raise their voices. Most of the time it is because they are passionate about what they are saying, rather than being angry.
Bulgarians are very detail oriented so it is possible that meetings may take longer than planned. You should keep that in mind and not schedule meetings too close to one another, otherwise you risk being late.
Giving a gift to a Bulgarian business partner
Gift giving is a somewhat sensitive subject when doing business in Bulgaria because of the problems with corruption the country is facing on all levels. So go for “meaningful” rather than expensive gifts that may be misunderstood. At a business meeting a suitable gift is a pen with the logo of your company, a souvenir from your country or maybe even a bottle of good wine.
If you are invited to the house of one of your business partners for dinner, it is customary to bring something for the host and hostess. A bottle of wine or some sort of dessert is your best choice. Also, you may choose to bring something “for the house”, like a souvenir, but again avoid expensive gifts since the gesture may be misread. If the hosts have children, you should bring a small treat for them too - a chocolate or other kinds of sweets.
Bulgarian people may choose to work on a holiday (e.g. Christmas or Easter) if they believe the effort to be profitable. Still, July and August are not a good period to arrange business meetings, since it is traditionally when Bulgarians go on their summer holidays.