In honor of the Olympics, this month Corporate Speech Solutions is dedicating our blog to multicultural practices in business. Last week we discussed the ways in which eye contact, personal space, and volume can change in communication across cultures. Today, we’ll discuss a few more specific situations that should be considered when communicating in a multicultural context.
Gestures: It’s important to remember that gestures are not typically universal. Gestures which may be completely inoffensive in one culture can be upsetting or provocative in another. For example, in other cultures the “okay” sign (index finger to thumb, all other fingers extended), a thumbs-up gesture, or ‘V’ with the palm facing the body are considered insulting, somewhat analogous to the American version of the middle finger. To avoid offense, try not to use gestures that may be uniquely American when dealing with professionals from another culture.
Smiling: Although a smile may seem simple, smiling is actually used in different ways in different cultures. For example, in some East Asian cultures, people offer a smile when embarrassed or confused. In Japanese culture, a smile is often seen as frivolous; smiling in important situations can denote that the individual is not taking the occasion seriously. When dealing with individuals from another culture, make sure you understand the possible reasons that they may or may not offer a smile in order to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.
Business cards: While Americans trade business cards with one another very casually, this practice is given a much higher level of respect in other cultures. For example, many East Asian cultures regard the business card as an extension of the individual’s professional image, and treat the exchange of cards quite seriously. A card is always received with both hands and then read carefully before being put into the receiver’s wallet. Writing on a business card in such a situation is considered extremely impolite. When receiving the business card of a professional from a culture you are unfamiliar with, err on the side of caution, and treat the card with respect.
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