03 Mar What You Don’t Say By Renee Houston Zemanski …Can hurt you.
If you are giving a presentation in a foreign country, you need to think about what you are saying nonverbally as well as verbally. Some gestures that are perfectly acceptable in the U.S. may be offensive in other countries, says Cynthia Lett, CEO of The Lett Group, consultants and trainers in international business protocol and etiquette. Anything people see your body doing is considered a gesture, says Lett. That’s why it’s extremely important to pay attention to body language when visiting and presenting in a foreign culture. For example, in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, we form a circle with our fingers to indicate the “OK” sign. However, in Australia, Finland, and Germany, this gesture is considered obscene, says Lett. In Japan, the OK sign means “money.” In France, it has the additional meaning of “worthless.”
But, let’s back up a moment. The first thing you will do when you get to your foreign destination is to greet people and the way you greet people in other parts of the world can be vastly different, says Lett. When you visit an Asian culture, you may get a handshake and a bow. In the Latin culture, the greetings are both handshakes and hugs and kisses, however, warns Lett, it’s not appropriate to hug and kiss the first time you meet someone. If they have met you before, expect it. Keep in mind there are always exceptions, says Lett. For example, Argentina follows European protocol rather than the Latin protocol. “In the Arab-Gulf region, Thailand, or Indonesia, understand that women may not be shaking hands with you,” Lett says. “Don’t put out your hand, wait until they put out their hands and reciprocate.” “Keep balance in mind,” Lett adds. “If you get a two-handed handshake, match it.” In other countries, the business card is considered a gift. Don’t accept it with your left hand; the left hand is considered the dirty hand in many cultures, so don’t extend it either. However, you can accept a business card with both hands. In some countries you should pass it and accept with both hands. For example, passing something with one hand, even your own business card in Japan is considered very rude. “You are expected to treat a business card with respect and don’t just put it in your pocket, toss it in your briefcase or purse,” says Lett. “Take the time to read it.”
Once you get the greeting out of the way, you’re still not out of the woods. Now you need to remember what you can and can’t do while you are presenting. In some cultures, you shouldn’t show your back to people. Always try to face them. In other countries, if you use your hands and arms to gesture, it is sometimes viewed as aggressive. If you must talk with your hands, says Lett, always gesture with an open hand and never with a fist or finger. “In our culture we don’t pay much attention to the feet and legs and because of that we offend a lot of people,” says Lett. “For instance, in many cultures, the idea of showing the soles of your feet is insulting. In the Middle and Near East, Thailand, Japan, and France, showing the soles of the feet demonstrates disrespect. You are exposing the lowest and dirtiest part of your body – insulting to say the least. So don’t cross your legs, either keep your feet on the floor or cross your legs at the ankles.”
“Other cultures’ rules came from a long, long history,” Lett explains. “In the U.S., we don’t have such a long history and you have to remember, we did a lot of things in defiance of the European countries when we first settled in America. We did that because we were escaping their way of life. I think people tend to forget that. So wherever you are going, the great rule of thumb is do research ahead of time. Don’t assume what happens in China happens in Peru.
” For more information, Lett recommends the following books: Gestures: The Dos and Taboos of Hosting International Visitors (John Wiley & Sons, 1990) by Robert Axtell, and Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries, 2nd Edition (Adams Media Corporation, 2006) by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conway.
Visit www.lettgroup.com for more information.