Avoid International Faux Pas
On his first trip abroad, a businessman figures his deal is going great as he leans back in the chair with his ankle on his knee. This casual professional attitude might work fine with those back-slapping clients back in North America, but this is an Arab country and he has just insulted his host. The culprit? The sole of his shoe. Unfortunately he didn't know that showing the sole of your shoe to others is disrespectful in Arab countries.

Here are more cross-cultural facts to remember the next time you have to attend an international meeting or conference.

North Americans have a "we can do it" attitude of being in control, but people in other countries may feel that fate is a big factor in life. For example, a contract which a North American sees as cast in stone may be viewed elsewhere as a guideline between trusting partners that could be revised, if necessary.
In China, it is assumed that the first person who enters the room is the head of the group. North Americans should observe this convention so as not to confuse the Chinese.
North Americans tend to be task-oriented and generally like to complete what's been started. By contrast, a Norwegian who places a high priority on quality of life, will end a phone conversation promptly at 4 p.m. to get home for dinner.
North Americans often get straight to the point when talking, then later flesh out the details. Latin Americans consider this approach blunt and the French think it's crude. The Japanese believe it's a sign of sophistication to derive the main point from a broad conversation without actually having to spell it out.
In China, receive a business card with both hands, immediately scan it for vital information and make a comment about the title or organization of the person. Then lay the card in front of you during a first meeting. It's demeaning to put someone's card directly into your pocket without looking at it first, and it's also considered impolite to write on someone's card in his presence.
Arabs may continue to hold your hand after a handshake and Latin Americans speak closely when communicating between men. The Japanese and Chinese keep approximately the same distance apart as North Americans when speaking. However, to them, backslapping is unacceptable.
In more hierarchical societies, staging a social event or meeting that includes people from various social classes isn't acceptable.
Individualism is honored in North America, but in some societies, such as Japan and China, cooperation and group recognition are paramount. Singling out one person for praise would separate them from the group and this could be embarrassing for them and you.
In South Korea, when motioning for someone to come closer, don't curl your index finder as we do in North America. This gesture is extremely insulting – this is how Koreans might gesture a dog on the street! Instead, extend your arm in front of you with the palm down. Then fan your fingers forward and back.

Most people will be forgiving, as long as you show respect, apologize and express your willingness to learn the proper code of conduct. If it's any comfort, our culture can be just as confusing for people coming to North America. For instance, a group of Senegalese visitors to Canada refused to eat hamburgers (assuming the dish contained ham, a type of pork) – they also declined to dine on hot dogs because they didn't eat dog, either.

1. Barry M. Goldwater


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