Winging It: A guide to respecting cultural differences abroad

Posted: July 19, 2010

No more pontificating about the airline business today.

Instead, I offer some advice about how to get the most out of international travel - for business or leisure - by gaining a better understanding of how different people can be the world over.

Some of the most interesting and intriguing sources of information I've come across are reference books that provide a cultural overview of multiple countries.

My favorite cultural guide for business travelers, and the most popular based on sales on www.amazon.com, is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Best-selling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries (Adams Media, 1995). Released in a second edition last year, the book was coauthored by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway, based in the Philadelphia area.

The guide provides some history of the 60 countries and their regions, lots of practical information for business travelers, and, most important, how to behave so you don't insult anyone or lose an important deal because of some cultural faux pas.

Morrison, who lives in Newtown Square, Delaware County, is also president of Getting Through Customs (www.getcustoms.com.), a consulting company that conducts seminars in cultural awareness for companies and other organizations that have to send employees overseas.

First published in 1993, Kiss, Bow is a brick of a book, almost 600 pages long, but still easy to read for the parts relevant to the individual traveler. It's available in a digital edition sold by a division of the McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., and marketed to businesses. There are smaller separate guides to Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Morrison, who taught high school Spanish and worked in human resources, specializing in training, before becoming an author, says there are some simple reasons for businesspeople sent abroad to learn what to expect and how to conduct themselves.

"The premise in business is you want to sell a product - either yourself or just a pen and pad of paper," Morrison said. "You want to sell in a gracious and civilized way."

When you meet a prospective customer in another country, "you have to motivate them to like you and trust you so they'll believe your product is superior," she added. "It's hard enough in our own culture. Add a different country, a different language, holidays and work ethics, and the chances of a sale diminish if you don't understand the cultural orientation . . . The day of the ugly American is passing. We hope."

If you don't want to be the ugly American when you're an international traveler, here are some samples of the valuable advice you will find in the book.

If you're headed to Brazil, don't count on your business colleague arriving at exactly the appointed hour because "lack of punctuality is a fact of life." Try to make appointments between 10 a.m. and noon so they can extend into lunch. And don't put your thumb and forefinger together to signal 'OK.' It is considered vulgar."

Greetings in Brazil can be effusive, with extended handshakes at first, progressing to embraces as a friendship develops. Women often greet each other with kisses on each cheek, or, if a woman is single, three kisses, the last to provide luck in finding a mate.

In Japan, "be punctual at all times. Tardiness is considered rude." In business negotiations, keep in mind that a Japanese response of "I'll consider it" may actually mean "no."

The Japanese are "very aware of Western habits and will often greet you with a handshake," but also know that the traditional greeting is the bow. "If someone bows to greet you, observe carefully. If you are greeting an equal, bow to the same depth as you have been bowed to, because the depth of the bow indicates the status of the relationship with you."

Throughout the Arab world, some gestures and mannerisms common to Americans can be cultural disasters. "The left hand is considered unclean. Always use the right hand in preference to the left." And remember to "Keep both feet on the ground. Arabs do not cross their legs when sitting. Never show your foot to an Arab. It is offensive."

Even in countries of Western Europe, where I've traveled most extensively, there are innumerable cultural differences you should appreciate. Here's one of my favorite examples from the section of the guide on Sweden:

"The primary hazard to visitors is the weather. Sweden's winter is cold, dark, and snowy. Aside from that, Sweden is a very safe country. The closest thing to a hazard that a foreigner is likely to encounter . . . is bafflement at the Swedish sense of humor. Swedes tell jokes with a straight face, which has led many foreigners to believe that Swedes have no sense of humor.

On Amazon.com, you will find other guides to cultural understanding that were of interest to people who bought Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. They are Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working With People From Other Cultures by Brooks Peterson; and Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, by Roger E. Axtell.


Contact Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com. After Aug. 2, contact him at beldens@aol.com.

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