The opportunity to travel around the world is one of the advantages of being a Global Protection Specialist®. However, with this comes the need to be aware of the differences in the customs and etiquette from one culture to another. What may be perfectly innocuous in one country may be extremely offensive in another. Granted, even if you have never traveled at all, you are probably aware of the fact that certain types of behavior are not acceptable in other countries. If you travel for business or pleasure, it is important to know some these standards of politesse and etiquette beforehand—the last thing you want to do is offend someone with ignorant behavior. Being familiar with the following examples of different cultural customs could save you from embarrassment, or perhaps even help to seal a business deal.
One example of a behavior that is regarded very differently in various cultures is belching at the table, which is often seen as a sign of gratitude (and compliment to the chef) in some parts of Asia, but in most of Western culture, such a display will earn you a fair bit of ire, or at the very least, a scowl. Another example is sitting with one leg crossed over the other and showing the sole of your foot to someone; seemingly innocuous to Westerners; however, in Saudi Arabia and a few other Arab countries, it is considered extremely offensive and insulting.
In Thailand, the people are generally positive, courteous, friendly, polite, and quick to smile. However, there is one seemingly ordinary thing a person can do that will turn the mood of a Thai in an instant. And that is, touching their head. In Thailand, you must never touch another person’s head. The Thai believe that the head is sacred because it is where the soul resides.
In Korea, no matter how hungry you are, you must NOT start eating before the eldest person at the table. If you violate this rule, you may never be invited back to share a meal at someone’s home. Also, whilst at the dinner table, you must never pour a drink for yourself; you should politely ask the person sitting next to you for a refill, as Koreans fill each other’s drink. This applies to other Asian countries as well.
In most countries, if you show someone your tongue, people will think that there is something wrong with you. In India, this gesture demonstrates anger. In Tibet, this gesture is used to show respect and is also used as a “hello.” There is an opinion that this tradition originates out of the belief that the devil has a black tongue; therefore by showing your tongue, you are simultaneously proving you are not the devil and offering a respectful greeting.
Presenting flowers is a good thing in almost all countries but there are some details that can make a huge difference. For example, in France, people associate lilies and chrysanthemums with funerals. The same association is made for chrysanthemums in Italy as well, although lilies are a favorite, being the national flower of Italy.
In many countries around the world, tips are included in the bill. This is true for the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, and Spain. On average, the tip is calculated at 10-15% of the bill. However, this rule does not apply for all European countries. In Austria, tips are only given to waiters who do their job well; and there is an unwritten rule in Austria: if a customer has asked for their bill 3 times and never receives it, they can leave the restaurant without paying.
In Western culture, a firm handshake while looking into the eyes of the person you are greeting is polite, but in other cultures, greetings can be quite different. In India, people bow to each other with their palms pressed together. In France, people greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks, although how many times depends on where you are in the country: In Paris, people kiss twice on the cheek; in Corsica — 5 times!
When dealing with Japanese clients, make certain to dress modestly and professionally, and ensure that you bow lower than they do when greeting them. When exchanging business cards, offer and receive them with both hands and examine the card with respect upon receipt. Abstain from posing direct inquiries: it is better to infer and to reply with uncertainty during discussions. Accepting a cup of tea or other gifts/blessings should also be done with both hands. This applies to China as well.
When meeting others in Mexico, women should initiate handshakes with men; however, all individuals should avoid direct eye contact as that can be viewed as forceful and hostile. When dining with locals in Mexico, keep elbows off the table and attempt to abstain from burping, no matter what. Keep hands off your hips, and never make the “okay” hand sign (thumb touching forefinger with other three fingers outstretched); it is extremely offensive and obscene (because it represents an orifice).
When welcoming a person of a higher status or more established in Kenya, men will hold onto their right wrist with their left hand while shaking hands as this is an indication of respect and concession. One should ask questions about their wellbeing, family, business and so on before moving onto significant subjects, as skirting these pleasantries is viewed as inconsiderate. As in Korea, do not start eating until the eldest male has been served and begins to eat.
Much like the Scandinavians, Germans are generally hospitable, and tend to be more formal in manner. Handshakes should be firm, and consistently address individuals with their titles (Dr./Mr./Mrs./Miss followed by their family name. “Herr”, “Frau” or “Fraulein” are appropriate if you can pronounce them correctly). Social graces are vital, so make certain to say “please” and “thank you” regularly.
In Barbados, a long history of British rule has established a formal custom of social graces, so make certain to address individuals with their titles (Dr./Mr./Mrs./Miss) and state “please” and “thank you” frequently. Formal social graces are an absolute necessity, as is proper attire anywhere other than at the seashore.
In Pakistan, it is an absolute must to be neatly and properly dressed when entertaining, meeting or dining with Pakistanis. Having an air of humility is an added plus. Being sloppily dressed for business and social events is viewed as extremely disrespectful. Also, when dining with others, one should eat with their right hand, as the left hand is viewed as unclean.
In Argentina, the concept of personal space is rather different. Individuals may lean in close to you when they are speaking to you and may touch you frequently during a conversation. As in Mexico, talking with your hands on your hips is seen as a sign of rudeness.
When greeting people in the Netherlands, do so warmly by smiling and making eye contact. When planning social gatherings, do make arrangements well ahead of time, and be reliable about attending other’s events as a guest. As in most European countries, don’t hesitate to bring gifts; for example, chocolate, wine, or flowers, when invited to someone’s home.
Russians enjoy their libations, so turning down an alcoholic beverage is viewed as appallingly hostile to them. Therefore, it may be wise to consume something high in carbohydrates or fats prior to embarking on a dinner or meeting with Russian or Ukrainian clients. Random smiling or grinning will lead them to believe you’re unsettled. Also, when paying the bill in a restaurant or making purchases, place your cash on the counter or table as opposed to handing it directly to the waiter/clerk.
Israelis like to be greeted with a warm handshake and a smile, while addressing them by their first name. Men must not address another man’s wife if she has not been acquainted with you as this is seriously taboo.
In the United Kingdom, be gracious in your discourse and never address anyone by their given name, unless welcomed to do so. Always address a person by their title (Dr./Mr./Mrs./Miss) followed by their last name and observe the usual social graces.
This short article only touches the surface of etiquette in other cultures so be sure to do your due diligence on the country you intend to visit before you go. A little research will go a long way to make a good impression and could save you from unnecessary embarrassment.