When I traveled from the United Arab Emirates to China to India to Malaysia to the Philippines to Indonesia on a speaking tour, it seemed to me that the audience was arriving later and later. In Jakarta, with my program scheduled for 7:00 p.m., I was advised: “Just ignore that announcement. We tell people to get here at seven, hoping they will arrive by eight. But to be on the safe side, we never begin the program before nine.”
Contrast that to a recent experience in Toronto where my speech was scheduled to open the conference at 8:00 in the morning. In order to check the audiovisual equipment, I arrived an hour early, only to see a line of people already standing outside the auditorium. Concerned that I had misunderstood the agenda, I grabbed the meeting planner. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “You’ve got plenty of time. We Canadians just have a habit of getting places early.”
Here’s the question: Which was right—the Indonesian concept of “rubber time” or the Canadian view of promptness?
Your answer, of course, depends on the cultural standards you grew up with, because different cultures relate to time very differently.
The concept of timeliness is only one of the many nonverbal variants you encounter when doing business internationally. Other variants include greeting behaviors (kiss, bow, or shake hands), seating arrangements, the way business cards are distributed and treated, and the amount of eye contact, visible emotion, and hand gesturing that is deemed appropriate.
Many emblematic gestures have cultural overtones. For example, what we in the United States think of as a positive gesture—the “OK” sign with thumb and forefinger together creating a circle—has very different meanings in other countries. In France it means “worthless” or “zero.” In Japan, it stands for money. And in other parts of the world it represents a lewd or obscene comment.
One of the most readily observed cultural differences is the degree of physical intimacy allowed or expected in a business meeting. Here is how a dozen business people around the world responded when I interviewed them for The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead:
My question: How close do you stand in a conversation with a business colleague—and how often do you touch?
United Kingdom. At least two feet apart, and we hardly ever touch business colleagues. Sometimes we might tap the table with a pen close to the person we are connecting with, but bodily contact is avoided.
China. Less than two feet, but more than one foot. Sometimes, we touch the other person’s arm or back or grasp a shoulder to show that we have established a trusting relationship. We may also bump into you while walking or talking. It’s not considered rude in Chinese culture to bump into other people.
Brazil. Distance isn’t an issue for us. We can sit close or even stand very close to our business colleagues. Hugging and touching are quite common in Brazil—especially in comparison with other cultures.
Trinidad and Tobago. Certainly men will not touch much, if at all; a pat on the shoulder at the end of a good meeting may be it. We stand about two feet apart.
Australia. Although known as relaxed and easygoing, Australians are surprisingly uptight about distance. Standing closer than two feet it is considered intense and possibly an indication you are to be told something very confidential. Unless there was a preexisting close relationship, an Australian would take a step backward or sideways to create space. We are more comfortable with three to four feet apart. Australians would flinch or stiffen at a touch from a business colleague. Most male executives would be concerned about legal implications of touching a female in the workplace. However, a light touch on the arm or shoulder communicates that “I am like you, I am one of you,” or “I appreciate what you have done.”
Germany. Germans are more comfortable when keeping a good arm’s distance away. And you won’t see much touching, but it is more common in southern Germany.
United Arab Emirates. People stand close, as the concept of personal space does not exist and all transactions are dominated by relationships. In fact, if people stand too far apart it is seen as a negative, and you can be asked why you are standing at a distance. However, not much touching happens in deference to the laws of the land; members of the opposite sex not related to each other by marriage are not supposed to touch each other in public.
Japan. We prefer to be three to four feet apart; a distance of two feet makes us feel uncomfortable. (A close physical proximity is unexpected except for the rush hour trains, where we simply give up and accept the situation.) In Japan people hardly ever touch their business colleagues, but sometimes a male manager might pat his male colleague’s shoulder for encouragement.
India. It is good to keep a decent distance (about two feet) during conversations and a demeanor that is respectful and body language that is open (no folded arms close to the chest). When it comes to ladies, sufficient care needs to be taken on how close one wants to stand and talk. In a business scenario, generally the only touch is a handshake on meeting and parting. Indians are warm people, and an innocuous pat to congratulate or to ask someone to stop is not seen as offensive. A touch on the arm and shoulder is normal, and a high-five among peers during a meeting is also a way of showing solidarity.
Tanzania. We stand at least a foot apart. We normally would touch/tap on the wrist or shoulder but very lightly.
Philippines. Two feet should be a good estimate for the Philippines, regardless of gender. For women, more senior executives would tend to be more formal and conscious of propriety. Touching is usually not appropriate among business colleagues in a meeting context.
Mexico. We stand close and constantly touch. If you don’t know someone well, you’d touch mainly the arm, shoulder, and back. With someone you know better, sometimes you’d lightly touch the leg.
Faux Pas and Forgiveness
Developing cross-cultural savvy can be difficult and time-consuming. But not doing so can cost you everything. In Hong Kong, I watched a newly arrived American executive meet with his Chinese team members, and I saw the new man destroy in five seconds the delicate and productive relationship that his predecessor had taken over a year to build.
Undoubtedly the exec thought he was coming across as a hard-charging, highly successful leader. And that might have been the case back in the States. But in this culture, his actions were seen as rude, insensitive, and overbearing.
Like anyone else dealing with an international clientele, I have made my share of cultural faux pas. One particularly memorable one was when I opened a global meeting with an icebreaker exercise—a tactic that we in the United States are fond of (after all, “time is money,” so we need to find quick ways to get this “relationship-building stuff” in full swing). The audience gave a collective sigh, and then one European participant said, “Not another American icebreaker. Why don’t they just wait until we thaw?”
I’ve also found that my international clients have been extremely generous in overlooking my cultural mishaps. As one client told me, “It will be fine, Carol. We know your heart is in the right place.” So Aretha Franklin was right; it all starts with R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you show a genuine respect for other cultures’ norms and values—even if you make an occasional blunder—it will be fine.