It’s never been more risky to be offensive
Learn to be respectful of other cultures
The worldwide climate has never been more sensitive. There seems to be something offensive about everything. Statues that stood for hundreds of years are now deemed outrageous, new meanings are being interpreted from patriotic songs, and using the wrong pronoun when referring to one of countless new genders may even become a criminal offense… it’s not a good time to be politically incorrect. Or is it? Could it be, that we have become too defensive, defiant simply for the sake of being victimized? If such is the case, it is important to recognize the frivolous from the truly offensive that can be rooted deep in one’s culture.
For instance, here in the United States, it is not uncommon for people to cross their legs, even during professional business meetings. In Japan, such an action is perceived as disrespectful, particularly if you are in the presence of an older, more respected person. In fact, you are expected to be mindful of good posture when seated, and never slouch, especially at meetings or when dining. In the Middle East sitting with your legs crossed is a slightly lesser offense than the potential exposure of the soles of your shoes. You may have heard that throwing shoes at someone is a great insult, it’s related to the misdeed of showing the bottom of your feet.
Indeed, with each culture come different thresholds. Ideally, anyone visiting a land that is not of their own culture will take that into consideration and be forgiving when naïve offenses are made. But you can’t be guaranteed that random gestures you make won’t be perceived as heartless insults. Obviously it’s a good idea to have a general idea of what could be generally potentially offensive, especially depending on the reason for your being in the presence of certain nationalities. If it has to do with business, it’s actually imperative that you are not to offend.
If your work takes you overseas, you likely deal directly with men and women of different cultures. Even if you work from home you probably still have a diverse global clientele. This is why it is so important to understand cultural differences in just about every scenario, from how we dress, how we eat, our hygiene and ultimately how we carry ourselves. Being ignorant to such matters will certainly harm your business and will not reflect well on you. Prevent misunderstandings by being respectful and educating yourself, you may not even be aware that you are doing something that is seen as rude.
Be aware that you need to be mindful of your use of hands or fingers. Gestures that you believe are old hat and harmless may have very different meanings to folks abroad, beyond the US. You may not have known this, but across the Middle East, a simple ‘thumbs up’ gesture is considered rude as is eating with your left hand. Even offering a gift is offensive if you do it with your left hand. Knowing these things can do you a world of good.
How often do you make the “OK” sign (thumb and index finger) without giving it a second thought? Well, if you’re in the company of anyone from Brazil, Germany, or Russia, please refrain – it refers to a certain part of the human anatomy. And a habit most Americans share is that of pointing. It’s a sign of disrespect in China, Japan, Indonesia, and Latin America. And asking someone to approach you by curling your index finger and gesturing toward yourself is not the polite norm in Slovakia, China, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, or the Philippines.
And, what of greeting your foreign counterparts – surely a simple hello will suffice, or perhaps a brief yet firm handshake? Well, here’s the thing, a handshake that is TOO firm is considered aggressive in areas of the Far East, where a bow is still preferred. Meanwhile, in the Middle East a typical handshake lasts longer than one in Europe. And your eye contact habits matter. We all have different levels of comfort regarding how long we look someone in the eye, and the levels of its cultural acceptance vary as well. Prolonged eye contact may be perceived as a challenge in places like Latin America and Africa. But here and in Western Europe it indicates a sign of intent interest and listening. Perhaps in every culture, eye contact between the sexes can be shaky, it certainly is in the Middle East – any longer than a moment is a potential recipe for violence.
And, what of physical contact? You can’t just hug everyone, it’s not appropriate everywhere. Generally, being ‘touchy feely’ is perceived differently throughout the world. In Britain, they maintain a dignified reserve, quite a difference to casual Americans, and Europeans! It is probably always best to keep your hands to yourself when in doubt.
As one becomes more worldly, a greater truth emerges. The rules are not the same for the primary genders. What is perfectly acceptable behavior from a man is not necessarily okay from a woman. Never is this more evident than in Muslim cultures. Their religion requires them to be covered from head to toe, and their interactions with men extremely limited. And though we may not agree with certain customs, it is not our place to judge. Always be accepting of others, unless they give you an absolutely valid reason not to.