There's a lot to learn about how to behave in another country simply through observation, “and then doing what others around you are doing,” says Leigh Wintz, executive director of Soroptimist International of the Americas, based in Philadelphia.
SIA members focus on community service, and the association has clubs in 19 countries and territories. Soroptimists are women of all ages, cultures, ethnic groups, and professions. One of the benefits of leading such an organization is encountering other members from around the world who have different backgrounds and life experiences — and different ways of doing business.
“We all carry our own culture with us, so everything we see, hear, or feel is done through our cultural biases and filters,” she says. “As Americans we are often so noticeable, because we are so unreserved in our behavior and so informal and casual right from the start in both business and social relations.”
For example, Americans are more apt to use an acquaintance's first name after meeting him or her. But it is a tradition unheard of in some cultures. “It's somewhat offensive to some, especially in countries where it's very important to build relationships before business takes place.”
Protocol has less to do with a particular region or destination — say, Europe, for example — than it does with the people living in that region. There can be differences between countries on the same continent and between cultures within the country.
“The French are very different from the Swedes, and the differences among Asian countries are vast,” says Wintz. “Most of the resources available on the subject usually compare different countries with the ways in which they perceive and react in several areas: time, names, gift giving, and gestures.”
On the issue of time, punctuality is a keystone. It's important to know if your colleagues expect you to be right on time, a little early, or are relatively loose with the minutes. It may explain why they're in a huff because you're five minutes past your scheduled arrival time — or why they're running 10 minutes behind.
For example, with names, it's important to know if the family name comes first or last. He may be Joe Smith in one culture and Smith Joe in another.
Gift giving can hold great significance in some countries. For example, you would want to avoid giving handkerchiefs to Chinese or Brazilian counterparts because handkerchiefs are associated with mourning. Knives, to some Latin Americans, can symbolize severing a friendship. And unwrapping a gift in front of some Asian colleagues could be deemed rude.
And gender roles can be a challenge, though Wintz says the standard might surprise some.
“While some countries, including the United States, still don't treat women equally in business or social settings, American women tend to enjoy an unusual status when traveling abroad,” she says. “Even in countries with some rather ‘retro’ thoughts about the place of women, I find that, as an American woman, I am treated very differently — and almost as well — as a male American counterpart.”
Wintz is careful to watch her behavior and dress, especially during personal time. In parts of the Middle East, Wintz may not go so far as to don a burka, but she wouldn't wear shorts and sandals.
“I wouldn't want to offend anyone's religious beliefs,” she says. “And it's not the time to flaunt your liberated status.”
The thing about different cultures is just that — they're different. And no one can expect to know every nuance. So mistakes will be made; faux pas committed. But some can be avoided by suppressing your own cultural biases.
“I learned never to ask what I'm eating until after I've tasted it,” she says. “It helps eliminate bias based on the source. In addition to the usual raw fish, squid, and octopus, I have eaten — and enjoyed — cod sperm, fermented sea slug intestines, goat, eel.” It's where her rule — “never put in your mouth anything larger than you can swallow whole” — originated.
Most mistakes come in the form of spoken and body language. “We seem to think everyone speaks English, and that they understand American English. Even for those people who are fluent, we often speak too fast and use vernacular that makes it hard even for interpreters to understand.”
But to remain cool and collected, even in the face of a faux pas, have a healthy sense of humor and know that even high ranking officials have made etiquette blunders.
There are a few steps planners can take to prep their group — and prepare delegates for their U.S. visit.
“Planners should review registration forms, dietary preferences, and visa requirements for delegates coming to U.S. meetings,” Wintz says. “When holding meetings outside the U.S., there will be a whole new vocabulary and ways to do business that the planner needs to understand before beginning to promote the meetings to attendees.”
For attendees, planners can create pamphlets or welcome material about the countries where they are traveling or about the countries from which international delegates are arriving.
“We hand out a short list of how to say ‘Please,ὑ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Hello,’ and so forth, in the six languages of our organization,” says Wintz. “It's fun and works as an icebreaker at dinner tables.”
It is also good to have in mind small-talk topics to help attendees become acquainted. Friendship and understanding go a long way in bridging cultural gaps and in understanding diversity.
“It's fun to exchange information on how weddings, births, funerals, are handled in various countries,” says Wintz.
While attending an event in Berlin, Wintz was sitting around a table made up of people from several countries, not all of whom were comfortable speaking English. A silence descended on the group.
“For some reason, I thought to ask what everyone taught babies to say when you ask questions, like, ‘What does a cow say?’” says Wintz. “It was hysterical to hear these adults making animal noises! And who knew that frogs croak very differently in Swedish, Dutch, French, German and English?” Now Wintz “collects” animal sounds wherever she goes. The only animal that seems to speak the same in all languages? The cat.
Leigh Wintz, executive director of Soroptomist International of the Americas, Philadelphia, shares a few international etiquette tips:
If you are in a country where bowing is the custom, you are not expected to bow as well. If you plan to, practice first to avoid “head bonking.” And there's a trick to knowing how long to bow, how deep to bow (it depends on rank and status) — you probably will never master that. So if you normally extend your hand for a handshake, do it naturally. But don't judge anyone by the strength of his or her grip. That's one of our cultural nuances. Plus, don't use first names unless they do and always use titles of respect.
Look at them — don't just throw them in your pocket. At meetings, it's often useful to keep them on the table in front of you, displayed in the order of how people are sitting relative to yourself. It helps keeps difficult names and titles readily available so that you aren't addressing your transportation questions to the audiovisual guy.
Our version of Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican food is usually prepared and offered for the American palate. But when you are in any of these countries setting up banquets with local cuisine, you can expect that American attendees are going to need guidance as to what they are being offered to eat. Don't be afraid to label foods, and offer at least one option for those who don't want to “go local.”