Within our own culture we are provided with a code of behavior which we learn from infancy. This code covers basic values and beliefs including attitudes towards different behaviors. There is right and wrong, professional and unprofessional, respectful and disrespectful. Unfortunately there is no such thing as international etiquette which has led to many challenges for leaders working in the global marketplace. When someone begins to consider their behavior in an international context they instinctively look to their own norms as being the logical, acceptable ways of being.
Sincerity is the key to success, at least in the short term. Europeans, Asians and Americans meet regularly at business conferences and manage to avoid giving offense by being their honest, authentic selves. In the early stages of business relationships any dissonant behavior is usually considered a faux pas and will be "allowed", and even considered eccentric or charming. However it becomes a different story once individuals move into more lengthy negotiations or joint venture entering into a collaborative partnership. Thus ongoing business relationships can place great stress on the tolerance of all parties as time goes by. eg the American habit of sprawling in chairs at business conferences may seem friendly and laid back to the British, but would place the Germans in constant state of unease. The Latin temperament, whilst engaging at first for Northern Europeans (particularly the Finns and the Swedes) will soon drive them up the wall. There is also a limit to how many cups of green tea a European can drink in any one day!
Some things are easier to identify, handshaking or bowing, chocolates or flowers for the hostess and ladies first are universally known but the deeper you delve into culture the harder it gets. In order to form true international partnerships you need to get under the skin of the natives, to peel back the membrane of the culture. It is critical that any international business traveller understands the important social norms, core beliefs and sensitivities and vitally what is strictly taboo.
So what are some of the major etiquette gaffes which may cause offense and even some of the more minor ones which may cause embarrassment?
Did you know:
- It is bad manners to point one's foot at an Arab in conversation or ask about the health of his womenfolk?
- Sending yellow flowers to a woman in some European countries may mean that she has been unfaithful to her husband?
- If you are left handed and eating in an Arab country you will need to inform the host beforehand as eating is reserved strictly for the right hand as left handed tasks are for those of an unclean nature?
- Gifts are big in Asia - wrap up presents in red paper - white on the other hand is an unlucky color associated with death. Never try to "outgift" a Japanese or Chinese you will never win, extravagance on your part will only result in escalating expense on theirs?
- In Russia, people don't answer other people's telephones they just let them ring and ring and ring... ?
- In Thailand a pale face is a sign of beauty in a woman so don't ask her if she is feeling unwell?
- In Malaysia it is taboo to point with your index finger but you may point with your thumb?
- In Indonesia the head is regarded as a sacred part of the body and should not be touched by another - it is also taboo for your head to be higher than a more senior person (which can lead to lots of heads bobbing up and down)?
- In Russia coats should not be worn indoors and it is bad form to stand with your hands in your pockets?
The list goes on and can become even more complex when status, leadership and organizations come into play as they do when collaborating in international business partnerships. Cross cultural training is an essential part of any executives learning curve to ensure that they can breakthrough their own cultural black holes.