When in Rome, do as the Romans do. If the Romans come to you, figure out what offends the Romans and avoid doing it.
You’re in business. Business – first and foremost – is now and always has been about people connecting with other people. As the age of information shrinks the world smaller and smaller with every tweet and Facebook update from Boliva to Sudan, it is more important to know the etiquette, protocol, and sensitivities of your potential business partners.
Here are a few examples of mistakes to avoid when doing business with people from different cultures.
Talk to the Hand
In January 2005, a Norwegian newspaper ran the bold headline “Sjokkhilsen fra Bush Datter” – translated to mean “Shock Greeting from Bush Daughter.” As part of the second inauguration of her father, President George W. Bush, Jenna Bush traveled to Norway and – while on stage in front of a group – flashed the symbol of pride for her alma mater, the University of Texas and their mascot, the Longhorns – a closed fist with the pinky and index fingers sticking up.
This perfectly innocent gesture – seen not just at UT football games, but at every rock concert since forever – meant something very different to the northern Europeans she was addressing, as well as to most of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and part of South America. She unwittingly either accused much of the world of cheating on their spouses and/or associated herself with devil worship.
Jenna Bush obviously didn’t mean to offend, but that’s not the point. The point is, every culture on the planet uses hand gestures, and none of them mean the same thing. Find out what to avoid and, if possible, avoid hand gestures altogether.
When the first President Bush was hosting a delegation from China, staff was sent scrambling when a protocol officer noticed the phrase “Made in Taiwan” on the bottom of china with which the table was set. The relationship between China and Taiwan has been extremely tenuous and fractured, with extraordinary emotions and resentments harbored by both sides after years of disagreement and often violence.
What’s more? When the delegation arrived on the White House South Lawn, the announcer doubled down. Instead of asking people to rise for the “National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China,” he asked to to rise for the “National Anthem of the Republic of China” – the formal name for Taiwan.
Every single country has ethnic or racial sensitivities, the very mention of which can conjure intense emotion and reaction. When it comes to race and ethnicity, know your song before you sing.
When the Queen of England visited America, President Barack Obama got off to a peculiar start when he greeted her with the gift of an iPod filled with his favorite music (an entire volume could be written on gift faux pas). To make matters worse, First Lady Michelle Obama then – gasp! – hugged the queen!
It is beyond horribly rude, it’s forbidden, to touch British Royalty – specifically the queen. Although the encounter did not lead to our third major war against Britain, it was an obvious case of not knowing when it is OK to touch.
Resist the urge to presume that because you shake hands or hug or whatever, your potential business partner does as well. Any contact whatsoever is often dictated by strict rules and protocols. The president’s wife got away with it – you may not.
The businessperson must believe that there is more that unites us than divides us – joining forces for mutual benefit is the essence of business. But what divides us really, really divides us. When it comes to cultural norms, do your homework – it’s just good business.
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