Why Awareness is Critical in Intercultural Encounters

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why Awareness is Critical in Intercultural Encounters

Cultural ‘Faux Pas’ or ‘Proprement’?

Why Awareness is Critical in Intercultural Encounters


handshakeWhen Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, he shook her hand with a pleasant smile and sincere eye contact.  He did well with the smile; however, critics were ‘up in arms’ about his left hand in his pocket.

Mr. Gates was visiting South Korea in April 2013 in order to cultivate business relationships, talk about nuclear energy and promote his new start-up “TerraPower”.  This was his first time meeting the new president.

Some of the press read:  “The handshake that has bruised a nation.”, “Plain rude”, “Ignorance or just plain disrespect?”, “Cultural difference or bad manners?”, “A disrespectful handshake or a casual friendly handshake?”

In Korean culture, a one-handshake is considered casual, something you would do with a good friend or someone younger.  With the other hand in the pocket it symbolizes superiority and can be potentially rude when done in the wrong context or situation. South Korea is a hierarchical culture and there are age-old traditions found in Confucian practices that require one to respect the rank and order of relationships and then to maintain such an order.

Some have argued that you can’t expect a Western person to follow, say, a Confucian culture’s rules nor be judged by its cultural standards.  Others have reasoned that he is a “casual man…not bound by customs” or that he’s “one of the richest men in the world and can do whatever he wants”.   But there is an appropriate protocol for such occasions when meeting with heads of state – regardless of how rich or down-to-earth you are.

Knowing some of the proper decorum is vital in creating goodwill and developing lasting relationships – especially if you are trying to cultivate them.  You have to take into account a person’s status, gender, and even religion, all of which are important. Reading up so that you are aware of what is permissible and what is not will put you on solid ground – and if you still are not sure – ask!

It has often been said that “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”  This adage is originally attested to St. Ambrose in his liturgical advice to St. Augustine (should he fast on Sunday as he did in Milan – or on Saturday as was customary in Rome). “If you were in Rome, fast in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there.”  You’ll find many sayings like this in other languages – in Chinese, the translations is “Enter village, follow customs’.  In Moroccan, “Do like your neighbor or move your house door.”  In Polish, “When you fly among crows, you should caw like them.”

Whether we shake hands, bow, or kiss someone on the check, it is important to be aware of the symbolism conveyed in the actual gesture.  It is not only good etiquette but smart business.  Being aware of a counterpart’s specific cultural norms demonstrates respect – and that you have spent time learning in order to develop a lasting relationship.  In Japan, the subordinate is expected to bow lower than the boss. In France, you kiss a friend on each cheek, but in the Netherlands, three times.  In China you are expected to give and receive business cards with both hands while commenting on the person’s impressive credentials.

Can a cultural faux pas break a relationship or potential business deal?  It depends.  Can you be forgiven a social or cultural faux pas?  Of course.  However, if you are to be successful as a global leader you must develop an awareness of cultural practices that carry important meaning to the people with whom you interact.  You may not always get it right, but it’s important to be alert and ready to adapt to the customs and practices of the people and the place you are visiting.

Anything that we can do to promote respect towards a counterpart’s culture or tradition is vital.  So, is greeting someone correctly a social necessity?  Yes, absolutely!




Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_20015437_male-and-female-hands-shaking-over-signed-contract-business-or-political-concept.html’>gajus / 123RF Stock Photo</a>