Help me not to offend people
March 31, 2010 4:07 AM   Subscribe

Help me not to offend everyone in the whole world!

I have a new job starting in the autumn. In it I'll be meeting lots of different sorts of people from all over the world, which I'm looking forward to. But it opens up a whole load of questions: should I offer to shake hands with a muslim man from Indonesia? A Thibetan buddhist woman? Do Pacific islanders drink alcohol? Coffee? Is the high five still the best formal greeting for Americans, or has it been replaced by the chest bump? And so on :)

in short: how should I learn international interpersonal protocol skills?

PS: meeting these people is not my main role, otherwise my employer would be providing training - I've already had diversity and cultural sensitivity courses, but they focus on "within workplace" longer term interactions. I want to know how to come over well in fifteen minutes with someone I'm not likely to see again.
posted by cromagnon to Human Relations (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Most people who are making the rounds of the western business world will have a grasp of the protocols. I seriously would not worry about it. As your interpersonal relationships with these people grow, there will be more opportunities for you to ask these questions of them. Be yourself, be polite, be receptive; you'll be fine.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:11 AM on March 31, 2010

Best answer: HSBC has country guides which outline, amongst other things, regional protocol. Might be helpful.
posted by jannw at 4:38 AM on March 31, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Presumably, you'll be introduced to these people in a group of your associates, or at least, by another party who knows you both; it's good to follow the lead of those introducing you to new people in business settings, in terms of handshakes, and similar personal greetings. That said, a basic international business etiquette guide like Terri Morrison's "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands" might be what you're looking to read and keep handy.

For many international business people, an exchange of business cards is still a fairly important ritual, and you'll be expected to hand out yours, with full contact details, and to keep cards you get from others in an organized format. I also think you should not presume that you won't again see business contacts you meet, even briefly. In fact, it is good to make some brief notes about the circumstance of your meeting anyone with whom you exchange business cards, as you may find that later, you're called upon to communicate with them, by telephone, email, or other means, and being able to recall them, or at least the circumstances of being introduced, creates a favorable impression. I still find business card filers, and a small notepad for making immediate post-introduction notes I can stuff in with the individual cards, to be a great boon to memory, even in these electronically mediated, Blackberry operated times. And also, having a digital camera at the ready, and being willing to use it, and to print hard copies for yourself and others, can help associate names and faces permanently, if you're meeting a lot of people rapidly.
posted by paulsc at 4:47 AM on March 31, 2010

Cromagnon, are you looking for general advice on how to learn these skills, or a list of specific suggestions for lots of different cultures?
posted by yankeefog at 4:47 AM on March 31, 2010

Working in a highly international setting, I find that doing as is normal for you, and being alert for other peoples reactions. I offer a hand unless the person is showing me with their body language (hands in pockets, behind back, has already raised a hand to wave) that they don't want to. On occasion I have held out a hand and the person has smiled, and put their hand to their chest with a slight bow, which I found to be a clear and charming way to "refuse".
posted by Iteki at 4:50 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

USA - Don't high-five or respeck-knuckles a stranger, and chest-bumps only happen on tv. Offer your right hand for a brief, firm handshake. If it's a female, still firm but don't try to break her hand. Look them in the face but not directly in the eyes, and say exactly what you mean, don't be subtle.
posted by rahnefan at 4:53 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've lived overseas for almost 3 years now, last year I worked in roughly 15 countries and this year I've already been in 8...I think.

I've found one of the most helpful and humbling things you can do in any country is to a) determine the prominent local language and then b) pick up a handful of basic phrases. I'm in Tanzania at the moment, so its Kiswahili:

Please: Tafadali
Thank you: Asante
Thank you very much: Asante sana
You're welcome: Karibu
How much does it cost?: Pesangapi?
That's too much: Bei ghali
What time is it?: Saa ngapi?
How are you?: Habari yako?
Good, fine: Nzuri, poa
And you?: Na wewe?

This shows that you're not some ignorant foreigner that expects everyone to cater to their every whim. Proves you're at least the faintest bit interested in / concerned about local culture. Also becomes *incredibly* useful in endearing yourself to others in everything from the most casual to the most formal interactions with others. Everyone in the office laughs and tries to teach me a new word each morning as we greet each other in the local language. The check-out girl at the grocery store giggles and chatters with me until its clear I'm not understanding, and then I ask her to speak slower (sema pole pole tafadali) and she explains what she's saying. Its also incredibly useful on the street when interacting with anybody and everybody who is trying to sell you something because you're clearly the foreigner with foreign funds in your pocket. "No, I don't want that..." (Hapana, sitaki...), etc.. Helps you not be just another chump on the street.

You don't need a very long list at all, and a short one can easily be memorized in a matter of minutes. Try to add a new phrase each day - "where's the bathroom," "how do you say...," "which way to...," etc..

The great thing about the internet is that such basic phrases are google-able in almost any major language, so there's really no excuse not to try.

I spent Christmas in France and while I don't speak a lick of French, I can't tell you how far I got with "Desolie, je ne parle Francais..." and then some broken English and hand pointing and whatnot.

Apply liberally, YMMV, but probably not very much.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:10 AM on March 31, 2010 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi folks - thanks for all this. A few clarifications - it's not business, but academia. The people I'll be meeting are likely to have little experience of business etiquette, being 18-21 years old (and possibly with parents) and I would likely be meeting them on my own and without mutual contacts. Consequently I guess I'm most interested a general guide to cover the absolute basics for a large number of cultures. The HSBC guides and book linked above are the right sort of thing, I think - any similar resources?
posted by cromagnon at 6:36 AM on March 31, 2010

If it's kids, they'll be more than happy to share with you. Pick up a few casual phrases (Hi, Bye, Thank you, Nice to meet you, yes, no) to use with the parents when you meet them and they'll be delighted. Pretty soon you'll know lots about all kinds of people and places. If it's not business, I think you just need an open mind and a humble attitude.
posted by GilloD at 7:20 AM on March 31, 2010

I'm guessing you're working with incoming students at a university admissions office or similar. You'll surely have certain countries that are more popular than others (China, S. Korea, India, etc.), so a quick survey of at least the top ten will be helpful. You can pick up some of the most frequently-used phrases, and maybe even share them with other people in your office. If your campus has an office of International Student Services, or a study abroad office, they can help.

A lot of the prospective students will want to... not necessarily become more American, but become citizens of the world and learn from others. Which is why they're coming to you :) So they'll probably be more used to American/globally accepted customs anyway, and be pretty forgiving if you make unconscious errors. But your efforts will certainly be appreciated, especially when the parents are thinking about their child's life far from home.

If your university is big enough to have ethnically/country-specific student groups, check in with them and see what they'd recommend, both in terms of customs and what made them feel welcomed during the admissions/outreach process. It's a great way to familiarize yourself with campus resources, too, including figuring out what could use improvement and who is more active than others.
posted by Madamina at 8:52 AM on March 31, 2010

Best answer: Oh, and if you don't find a resource to meet your needs, why not make one yourself? Check it over carefully, of course, but share it with others and pass it around to other offices, and your efforts will be very popular :)
posted by Madamina at 8:53 AM on March 31, 2010

sio42, everything you said is accurate.

Handing someone a business card in Japan is like giving over a little piece of the person's soul: you give and receive with both hands, look at it a long time like you are reading it (and if it is an important person, you keep looking longer). Typically they will be left out in place-order on the table during a meeting.

Never never ever be caught by the giver while writing on the card or stuffing it in your pocket.

I never really got the 2-hand-give-and-receive-at-the-same-time movement down pat...
posted by whatzit at 2:25 PM on March 31, 2010

One thing that seems big to me is to make sure to listen really hard when you're hearing someone's name for the first time. Don't be afraid to ask if you're pronouncing it right. You're going to encounter a lot of names you've never heard before, and triggering your brain to remember it properly can be difficult unless you've prepped it for something new.
posted by lauranesson at 3:39 PM on March 31, 2010

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