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Cross-Cultural Communication: Grin and Jump In!

Multiculturalism is a reality in North America and for those of us who do business globally. The US has more legal immigrants yearly than all the other countries in the world combined. Also there are vast cultural differences among "native" North Americans living in the US and Canada for several generations, as you know if you've done business with a New Yorker (better be quick!) or with a Texan (better stand at a 90degree angle to your male companion).

Culture is not ethnic or racial. It is learned and of course each culture is different. Treat everyone like a unique individual, as you would like to be treated, don't get hung up on stereotypes. Develop your emotional intelligence so you can be more intuitive about how to communicate with, negotiate with, and provide services and products for people from cultural backgrounds other than your own. I offer some tips below, and yet they are not universal in these cultures.

1. I repeat, do not expect everyone in a culture to be the same!

2. In South Texas, if you're talking to a male, they will often stand at a 90 degree angle to you.

If you move to reorient, a "dance" will begin. This is a markedly non-intimate position, and often the eyes are cast down to the floor or out across the floor. South Texans generally say "Pleased to know you," while Mid Westerners say, "Pleased to meet you" or "Pleased to make your acquaintance." In social settings in South Texas, it is not customary to shake hands with women. Other San Antonio cultural customs -- in San Antonio society, we have the haute hug - two women will parody a hug, not touching any part of their bodies, and just patting one another lightly on the back. As a sign of affection, when you shake hands, sometimes you cover the other person's hand with your left hand and pat or squeeze with warm eye contact. This is particularly done with respected older people.

3. Be aware that most of the world does not greet by shaking hands.

4. People from Asian cultures bow in greeting, but the bows are different.

People from Cambodia and Laos bow with both hands together in front of the chest, as if praying. In Japan, the depth of the bow signifies the level of respect for the other party. Many Koreans prefer bowing and if they shake hands, the right hand is supported at the wrist by the left hand to show respect. Thais bow with palms together about chest-high with their fingers outstretched. And, there are exceptions. The Taiwanese usually nod the head in recognition rather than bow.

5. Some cultures naturally greet by hugging.

Native Hawaiians hug each other, exchanging breaths. The custom is called "ha." Ancient Hawaiians, incidentally, actually bumped heads together. Mexicans use the abrazo. Greeks and Italians often hug with or without shaking hands first.

6. Some cultures kiss!

If your Cuban male client kisses you on the cheek, you know you've made the short list. Immigrant men from the Middle East often shake hands with a slight nod or bow and then exchange kisses on both cheeks. Men from the Middle East usually don't shake hands with women, nor do they introduce the woman with them. Do not attempt to shake hands with a Middle Eastern woman unless -- and here's where the EQ comes in -- she extends her hand to you. Men in Eastern Europe, Portugal, Spain and Italy will often kiss male friends on the cheek.

7. Pakistanis (largely Muslims) greet with salaam, which is the equivalent of our "hello."

The salaam is done by bowing with the palm of the right hand on the forehead. Salaam means "peace" or "Peace be with you."

8. Postures also have meaning.

Ready to settle in with your Middle Eastern client? You may be most comfortable sitting back in your chair and crossing your legs. Well, don't! In the Middle East, one of the most insulting things you can do is sit with your legs crossed so the bottoms of the feet are pointed in the other person's direction. The foot is the dirtiest part of the body and the sole of the shoe is the dirtiest of the low. To show someone the bottom of your foot or shoe means you're looking for a fight!

9. Even handshaking cultures do it differently.

Many Britian's prefer a brief but firm handshake. The French prefer a light grip while sharing a single gentle shake that's quickly withdrawn. Germans will give a very firm handshake -- just one "pump" then quick withdrawal. More than one shake with Germans or French is considered aggressive. Italians will shake hands and then hug friends or kiss them on both cheeks.

10. Bear in mind the other person may be trying to accommodate your culture, so don't assume they will use their traditional greeting.

For example, if you start first, for instance bowing, and then see a hand extended for a shake, and switch to that, the other person will then have switched to a bow and this becomes awkward. For many cultures such "awkwardness" will kill the relationship early on, which means the deal is off.

11. Greetings are critical first moves in relationships.

Begin with a polite word or two, such as "Mr. and Mrs. Takida, it's so nice to meet you at last," and then hesitate for a moment to see what they want to do and are comfortable with. Then mirror their gesture, be it bow, hand shake, abrazo (hug) or nothing! Use your intuition! When in doubt, err on the side of conservatism.

I look forward to the day when we abandon our collective need for safety through homogeneity and reclaim our natural curiosity about what is not like us. We then will no longer need to "manage" diversity, and will have no need other than to engage it and open ourselves to receive its gifts.

About The Author

Since the early 1980s, Judith Richardson, M.A., has been pioneering in the fields of sustainable leadership, essential partnership, international teamwork, educational renewal, creating a customer service culture and workplace diversity. Featured in ICFAI University's Executive Reference on Diversity Management, author of Four Keys to Engaging Leadership, and Keynote at International Conferences, Judith was nominated for International Coach of the Year 2003, and works with International Organizational Development across North America, Europe, Jamaica, Denmark, Sweden, Israel and Russia. (www.ponoconsultants.com www.emergentfeminine.com). Tel: (902) 434-6695.


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