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Six Ironies of Cross-Cultural Etiquette

Manners don't always travel well. Doing what you do at home can offend foreign hosts. Thankfully, there are some guidelines to avoid embarrassment, plus a 'golden rule', but probably not the one you think. 

When to arrive, whether to shake hands, which fork to use, how to run a meeting – such customs vary from place to place, not always by obvious logic. So when travelling or living abroad, preparation and flexibility are good. It is also helpful to know the six ironies of cross-cultural interaction.

1. iPod or wePod?

Individualism or collectivism is one of behavior’s deepest drivers. So deep that many who have lived in monocultures don't even realize that such polarity exists. Or that the former is found more in the world's North and West, the latter more to the South and East. 'Honesty is the best policy', thinks the individualist, as he unwittingly insults his collectivist office-mates with unnecessary truths. 'Don't make anybody lose face', thinks the collectivist, as she stutters out a 'yes' that actually means 'no', leaving her individualist project team confused and frustrated. The irony is that in the right context, either style – tough talk or delicate deference – is not only suitable, but desirable.

2. Time Really is Money

…and can be spent in vastly different ways. It depends where you are. For instance, in China or India there tends to be much more ceremony and ritual than in, say, the USA. Americans in Asia sometimes complain of 'wasting time' with formalities. Asians in America can feel rushed and depersonalized by the 24/7 focus on 'getting down to business'. The irony is that both styles actually are meant to be polite. "East Asia is a very ceremonial place," says Urs Buchmann, a Swiss national who has worked with Credit Suisse's corporate and institutional clients there for decades now. "Ceremonies are a key part of how respect is being expressed." Likewise with the slam-bam American approach: in their hurry-up world, it's considered considerate not to take up too much of another person's time. And then there is the time issue of punctuality. This can be either a virtue or vice, depending on the location. For a dinner party in Switzerland, it's rude to arrive late – your host is waiting. In Brazil it's rude to arrive on time – your host is still in the shower.

3. What Comes First, Tasks or Relationships?

'Task culture' projects a stereotype of an engineer or a coach, with a schedule in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. 'Relationship culture' conjures up a therapist bearing chicken soup and wearing a fuzzy jumper. The trade-off between these two varies not only between societies, with the North and West better known for the former and the East and South for the latter, but also between genders, age groups and business sectors. Ironically, in most cases either approach is well meant. Although, all the bonhomie in the world won't deliver next quarter's financials or keep a skyscraper standing straight, an empathetic smile or a kind gesture sometimes can do more than leading-edge technology or a flash gadget ever could.

4. Up Close And Too Personal

'Getting in someone's face' can either be good or bad, depending where you are. Europeans and North Americans tend to do business at least at arm's length or longer, while Africans, Middle Easterners and South Americans are inclined to come closer. Touching, hand shaking and eye contact correlate accordingly (with some exceptions for cross-gender encounters), says Notre Dame Professor James O'Rourke, a specialist in cross-cultural issues. Variations in intimacy also apply to clothing: with wide ranges in formality, uniformity and modesty. Then there is personal privacy, or lack thereof. Talk of money and medical procedures – not to mention the classics of religion, politics and sex – are welcome in one place and not in the next. Visible emotion is also greeted or shunned according to culture. And this can even change with context, observes Christian Huber of Credit Suisse. The Swiss private banker notes that the shy, conservative demeanor common in Japan, where he has been living for eight years now, can disappear during after-work dinner and drinks, only to be back in full force by office hours next morning. The irony, once again, is that despite their diversity, approaches to intimacy are almost always well meant. Still, too much can come off as intrusive, not enough can seem cold and heartless.

5. Who's The Boss?

Authority tends to polarize along the lines of dictatorships or democracies. Each of these approaches has its fervent proponents, and depending on the circumstances, can be entirely right. The irony is that either is hard to correlate with other cultural traits. There's not really an East-West or developed/developing divide, and it's also easy to confuse authority with formality. For example, Germans address even colleagues and subordinates as Mr or Mrs, while Americans of low rank don't shrink from calling their CEO by first name. Nonetheless, say many who have frequented both cultures, American business is more dictatorial than German. A boss in Minneapolis is probably less formal than a boss in Munich, but simultaneously less likely to give employees a say in decisions.

6. When in Doubt

Etiquette do's and don'ts go on and on, filling many a book, slide deck and YouTube video. A particularly good source, notes Credit Suisse's Head of Leadership Development, Michael Steiner, is GlobeSmart® software (source of some of these ironies). As well as making the program available to all employees, the bank offers training courses and consulting to those travelling and working abroad, even to members of multi-culti project teams. Amongst all the do's and don'ts, there are two general rules. First is to respect your host culture. "Even if you're far from mastering the language, try out a few local words," comments Philipp Kuhr, a German who runs Credit Suisse's Internet Web Services team in Wroclaw, Poland. "Show interest; it'll be appreciated." The second is an ironic mutation of the golden rule: treat others not as you would like to be treated, but as they would like to be treated. Easier said than done, but – no irony here – it's the key to cross-cultural harmony.