Don’t be a cultural colonialist

Years ago when I taught English as a Second Language, I touched a Thai student’s head. He was deeply offended. Another of my students, a wealthy Iranian teenager, would constantly snap his fingers at me when he wanted my attention. This time I was offended.

How we move, act and gesture is very important as we deal with other cultures. Here are some cultural etiquette tips to help you when you’re speaking face to face.

Don’t kiss the Queen

Understand if a handshake, a bow, a kiss or a nose rub is the appropriate greeting when you meet someone for the first time. When the actor Mickey Rooney met Queen Elizabeth, he kissed her hand. The British were not amused. He had violated centuries-old protocol.

Look but don’t touch.

North Americans are very informal. We slap people on the back, put a hand on an elbow or give someone a quick hug. Be careful. This might be offensive in another culture. This is especially important if you’re a man and dealing with a woman in another country. The actor, Richard Gere, repeatedly kissed Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at a concert in New Delhi – and offended an entire nation. In fact they wanted to arrest him. Men, especially if they’re not family members, do not kiss women in public in India.

Left or right?

In some countries, using your left hand to touch food or cut a ribbon at an opening is almost taboo. Make sure you use the correct hand.

To point or not to point.

Should you point with a finger at someone? Should you snap your fingers? What does a hello wave or a good bye wave look like in another country? Better find out before you go. You might be gesturing bye-bye when you mean hello.

Table etiquette

Never put your elbows on the table? When you’re eating in another country what are the correct table manners? In France, you should always leave your hands and wrists on the table. How about chopsticks? Can you handle them or will your Peking Duck flip over into another guest’s lap.

Learn the customs and cultural etiquette of the country or client you are dealing with. It can save you from embarrassing yourself or your company. It will also show respect for the other culture – and go a long way to building a successful relationship.

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