By Katharine Giovanni
About 15 years ago, I was flying home from a training gig and arrived at the airport. Since I had been training people for two days, I was tired and ready to go home. I got into line at the gate to get onto the plane, and as I stood there, I found myself surrounded by a group of Japanese businessmen. Now when I say surrounded, I mean SURROUNDED. We were standing shoulder to shoulder with their arms and shoulders touching mine. Since I’m a typical American and like to have some personal space around me, this situation made me uncomfortable. So since I was in no hurry to board the plane, I stepped out of line and moved to the back.
A little while later, I was sitting comfortably in an aisle seat on the airplane. After I got settled, I politely nodded to the businessman next to me. Since it was obvious that he didn’t speak English, I opened the book that I had brought with me and started to read. About thirty minutes later, he decided to visit the restroom. So he stood up, lifted his leg, and tried to crawl over my body. Since I generally don’t like people I don’t know crawling over my lap, I immediately stood and held my hand out indicating he should wait. I then politely motioned him to go by. I sat down and tried to go back to my book.
I just knew he was going to do it again upon his return, so I was ready when he arrived a few minutes later. However, before I had time to stand up, the leg came up a second time and he tried to crawl over me. I repeated the performance I gave a few minutes before and stood, held out my hand, and motioned him to go back to his seat.
After it was all over, I quietly sat there and tried to breathe. I attempted to calm myself by reading my book, but after I read the same sentence four times, I knew that it was impossible. So I put my book down and glanced around the cabin. Imagine my surprise when I saw all the Japanese doing the exact same thing as my seat mate. My anger dissolved in a heartbeat. I immediately realized that a gesture they consider to be polite and normal in Japan, we consider rude here in the United States.
How can you be mad at that?
My journey into the world of international protocol began. I purchased a few books, visited websites, and made absolutely sure that I checked out the customs of my clients’ countries before I met with them. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I’m trying.
This leads me to international gestures. Please be careful here because a gesture that is common in the United States might be terribly rude in another country. For example, if someone asks you for directions in the United States, you might raise your right hand and point with your finger. However, pointing is considered extremely rude in many countries. If you have to point, then I suggest that you point using an open hand with your thumb curled into the palm of your hand and your other four fingers locked together.
Here are some examples that I pulled from the wonderful book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conway. The book lists dozens of countries and protocols:
Talking with your hands
In the United Kingdom, it is considered impolite to talk with your hands in your pockets. Also, Brits keep their hands on the table when eating (as opposed to Americans who put their hands in their laps).
In Japan, even the slightest gesture can mean something, so make sure you don’t make any expansive hand or arm gestures. Although pushing your way through a crowd is extremely impolite here in the U.S., it’s not in Japan. In fact, I’m told that it’s the only way you can get on the Japanese subways.
In the U.S., direct eye contact is a sign of honesty. However, in Latin America, prolonged eye contact is considered aggressive, so if clients are not looking directly at you when they are speaking, then they are being polite. In Japan, prolonged eye contact is considered rude, as is pointing.
Respect their comfort zone
Americans have a few odd quirks, and this is one of them. As I mentioned above, when we stand next to someone, we like to have a two- to three-foot comfort zone around our body at all times. If someone invades that personal space, many will take a step back to reestablish our personal comfort zone.
Not everyone feels this way though. Latin Americans like to stand close when they’re speaking to you, which is hard for an American because we’ll instinctively want to step back to keep our distance from them, which the Latin American will find rude. Greeks are expressive and will stand close to you and might even kiss you when you first meet them.
What other quirks do Americans have? We’ll talk about anything— our family, our kids, our career, even sex, just don’t ask us how much money we make. Americans hate to tell people how much money they earn. Many Europeans don’t care and will tell you their earnings in a heartbeat. Americans? Not so much.
Heads and hands
When someone from Germany shakes your hand, it’s often accompanied by a nod of the head. Germans find it insulting if you speak to them with your hands in your pockets.
In the Muslim and Hindu world, your left hand is considered unclean. So use your right hand as much as possible.
Feet are considered unclean in South Africa and India, so don’t touch anything with your feet. If you do, apologize immediately. In Singapore, you shouldn’t sit with your legs crossed because it shows the bottom of your feet, which is considered extremely rude.
Be careful when you are giving gifts, especially when it comes to color. For example, the color for mourning is black in the United States, red in parts of Africa, and white in Asia. Never give anything made from cowhide to Hindus, as cows are considered sacred.
I could go on and on, but I won’t, of course. This was just a small sample to give you a little taste of international protocol and how important it is. If you want to offer concierge-level service, then you must have a good working knowledge of other people’s customs around the world.
One last thought. If you don’t understand the person because of his heavy accent, please don’t pretend that you do. Honesty is always the best policy. Smile and apologize, and then gently tell the person you’re having a hard time understanding him. Ask him to slow down a bit. The key here is to make the person realize that you are genuinely trying to understand and help him.
For more information about international protocol, I suggest that you visit http://www.kissboworshakehands.com. I actually have a copy of the book on my desk and will read the necessary chapter when I have an international client flying in so I know what to say and do. Another great protocol site that I use quite often is http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources.
Copyright 2019 by Katharine Giovanni. All Rights Reserved.
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