In my musical career I traveled and worked abroad quite a bit and I was forever grateful to the locals who helped me learn the social norms and etiquette nuances of each region. From the British women who taught me how important it was to honor “tea time” to the German gentleman who in no uncertain terms told me that crossing the street during a red light, even when no cars were coming, was simply not done in his country. I was lucky to have others show me the ropes so I could acculturate quickly.
With business travel becoming increasingly international, I find many of my clients and students are nervous about getting around in foreign lands. One of my favorite protocol books is: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway. They illustrate the social and business etiquette norms in 60+ countries around the world. It’s a must have for savvy travelers as well as rookies crossing the pond for the very first time.
Here are some examples of how you can be misinterpreted in foreign lands by doing something that feels quite natural in the USA.
Nodding Your Head – in most societies this means YES but in Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey it means NO.
Eye Contact – this is strongly encouraged in America, Canada, and Europe as a way to build rapport and trust in a business context. In many Asian countries and Africa – eye contact is considered rude and used in very small doses.
Pulling Your Ear – for Navajo Indians this means “You are my heart!” while in India it means “I’m sorry.” The universal cupping if the ear means “I can’t hear you.”
Nose Power – Holding your nose is universal for “Something smells bad.” but in England, a nose tap means that something is confidential, while in Italy it means watch out or be careful. In many Asian countries, blowing your nose is impolite and never done in public.
OK – The OK sign (thumb and forefinger form a circle) means Fine or ok in most cultures but it means Zero or worthless in France. It’s an insult in Greece, Brazil, Italy, Turkey and Russia.
So if you are heading to exotic destinations this season for business or for pleasure, think about the first impression you want to make and consider brushing up on your international manners.