Robertson Languages > Culture > We shake hands – he bows. How strange is that?

We shake hands – he bows. How strange is that?

Jun 15 in Culture

In this blog, our Training Manager Mark Lewis shares some insights into social etiquette when you do business with people from a different cultural background:


A man offering his hands for greeting while the other man is bowing

I was talking to a cultural briefing professional the other day, and she told me about a trade fair that she had recently attended.  At the event she got talking to a couple of attendees whose company had just been bought by a businessman from the far east.  “How’s it going?”, she asked the employees.  “Oh, OK”, one of them answered, “Funny thing is, he comes into a meeting, we shake hands, he bows.  How strange is that?”  The cultural briefer in return asked them how they imagined that would make the businessman- their new boss- feel?  There was, I am informed, something of a pause.

Adjustment begins at home

In the business landscape today, it is no longer the person who is relocating who necessarily has to adjust.  The historical setting for cultural briefing is when a relocating assignee requires an overview of the norms and expectations of the environment they are going to live in.  We English speakers forget that we need to adapt not only when we are the stranger, but also in a million other situations.  Do we get the best out of our employees for whom English is not their native language?  I hear stories all the time of assignees who can’t get their views across in business situations because they are shouted down or interrupted by native English speakers.

Applaud the achievement of non-native English speakers

So how do we make the most of people that have been brought to another country- normally at considerable expense- to work in our country?  Perhaps it isn’t just the relocating assignees that need to look at themselves.  To put this in another context: the world’s population that only speaks one language is 40%.  The year that global levels of illiteracy passed below 40% is as recently as 1983.  So if you can’t speak another language, but you work with a person for whom English is not a first language, you can do three things.

  1. Applaud their achievement.
  2. Think of yourself as the minority – which, in global terms, you are.
  3. Have a think about how you can change your behaviour to make them more welcome, to understand their views, and benefit them, yourself, and the company.

Maybe it’s not your newly-arrived manager- who has gone to the trouble of learning English to a high standard- that requires the cultural awareness!

If you want to find out more about our cultural awareness training courses please get in touch.


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