January 2017
By Leah Guren

Image: © Hramovnick/istockphoto.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.




Donít use that fork! - The myth of the cultural faux pas

There once was an American businessman who was scheduled to visit his companyís Japanese subsidiary for a series of meetings. To prepare for the trip, he read about Japanese culture and customs, and even learned a few basic words of the language. He hired a consultant who taught him the proper way to greet his Japanese hosts, how to exchange business cards, how to eat with chopsticks, and more.

"In Japan," the consultant told him, "you must always start with a statement of humility about your own worth or status, and a statement of praise honoring your host." With that in mind, the American businessman carefully wrote his speech. Once in Tokyo, he followed all the rules, bowed just the right degree, and presented his business cards with both hands.

Then it was time to make his presentation in front of 2000 employees. "I am deeply honored to be here in your beautiful, modern factory," he began. "I am humbled when I see the excellence of your production methods. There is much that we can learn from your efficiency and your high standards of manufacturing quality."

All of the Japanese employees laughed uproariously.

The American was confused, but he managed to finish the rest of his presentation. Later in the day, he had an opportunity to ask his host, "Why did everyone laugh at me? I was trying to be polite!"

His host bowed. "Yes," he said, "but we told everyone that all Americans start their speeches with a joke."

Of course this is only a silly joke that has been making the rounds for more than ten years. But it is a wonderful way to illustrate the problem of cultural over-sensitivity; that is, the fear that we may irreparably damage relations with a customer or a coworker by ignorantly (though innocently) committing some horrible cultural faux pas.

Learning about other cultures is always valuable. It enables us to better understand other people. It enriches our own lives by providing us with a broader perspective. It shows our hosts that we have taken the time to notice and appreciate their culture. And of course these are all good things.

But do you really think that in IT, a developer would storm out of a meeting because you said her first and last names in the wrong order? Or that a high-tech customer might cancel an order because you scratched your nose? Or that attendees at an international conference would be offended by the background color of your slide deck? This is simply foolish. People are smarter than that, and people in IT are more sophisticated than that.

Iíve traveled all over the world and Iíve participated in projects with geographically dispersed teams. I have had to deal with communication problems many times, but I can honestly say that I have never seen someone lose a sale for using the wrong fork or pouring water with the wrong hand. If you are acting in good faith and treating your hosts with the same courtesy and respect that you would treat an honored guest, then no one will interpret mistakes as an aggressive act of rudeness.

If you are still nervous about being hopelessly tactless, here are some tips to reduce the risk:

  • Research the country. Knowing something about the history of the country you are visiting is very helpful. Understanding even basic current events can help you steer away from disastrous topics. Is this a country that has recently undergone massive political changes? Are they recovering from a recent war or a natural disaster?
  • Learn a few phrases. Nothing wins hearts faster than learning to say hello, please, and thank you in the local language.
  • Identify proper greeting styles. Greetings can be awkward; do you shake hands? Kiss? Both sides? The same for men and women? Many years ago, a wise colleague taught me a trick to help navigate the complexity of greetings in heterogeneous cultures (for example, those where the secular and the religious follow different rules). Now, I smile, incline my head slightly, and wait for the other person to initiate the action, whether a handshake, a Namaste palms-together bow, or an embrace with kisses.
  • Identify major taboos. Make sure you check up-to-date sources, as a shifting political landscape can eradicate old taboos and create new ones (see #1 above). For instance, a rep from Argentina once arrived on site wearing an orange shirt at a time when orange had been adopted as the color of an extremely divisive political faction. He had no idea what his shirt "meant" and how people perceived him.
  • Ask the right questions. Everyone loves telling you about their country, customs, culture, and history, if you ask questions in the right way. The trick is getting people to talk without asking what sounds like either judgmental or clueless questions. If you want to stay on safe topics, ask people about their favorite holidays, best childhood games, etc. Everyone loves talking about fond memories.
  • Learn the gift of the gift. Giving and receiving presents is a very big thing in some cultures. Learn what is appropriate and learn how to accept gifts graciously and enthusiastically.
  • You donít have to eat monkey brains. Donít eat meat? Donít worry. Canít handle cheese? No big deal. Donít drink alcohol? No problem. The trick is telling your host what you cannot eat (whether for health or religious reasons) and then being 100% willing to try anything else. No one is going to force you to drink cobra blood or eat yak testicles if you let them know you are vegetarian. But that means when they bring out the stinky fermented tofu, you had better give it a try.
  • Focus on clear communication. It can be an effort to make sure that you understand and are understood, but the success of the project may depend on it. Donít be embarrassed to ask for clarification. Always take the responsibility (for the lack of understanding) on yourself (that is, never blame the other person for being hard to understand). Do you need to use pictures? Say something again in shorter, simpler sentences? Use pantomime?
  • Be a decent person. Being polite and friendly goes a long way, even when there is a gaping cultural chasm and you donít speak the language. I once got completely turned around and walked three kilometers in the wrong direction. I ended up far away from the city center in an area with no tourists and no one who spoke English. But somehow, with maps and sign language and a few words, the proprietor of a small ice cream shop managed to show me where I was. One of his patrons, an older woman, escorted me to the correct bus stop. We had not a word in common, but we smiled and nodded a lot, and I made it clear that I was appreciative of her help.

So relax and enjoy the opportunities that come with business travel and multi-cultural projects. Just be a decent person and you will never have to worry about using the wrong fork.

Do you have another story about cultural over-sensitivity? Iíd love to hear from you.