When lacking cultural etiquette, the best intentions can pave the way to hell.
Here is a funny story: Last week, I visited a series of our brand’s offices around the world. It was my first mission on a travel itinerary, so I was truly thrilled. So thrilled, that I decided it was a good idea to prepare a small kit of goodies to offer the teams I would meet. Nice thinking, huh? After all, there is a reason “Always plan ahead!” is our motto- so I left carrying an extra luggage of what I thought would be the best way to say “Hello! I am happy to meet you!”.
Seems clear enough. But my message failed to be delivered.
In Japan, people were frustrated just looking at the cardboard boxes holding my presents. In China, it was even worse- the recipients refused the gift, and then, when I quickly took it back, looked even more insulted. And in Italy- oh, Italy!- the first person I met and tried to offer my well-meant gift to, looked at me as if I was hitting on her.
My feelings were utterly hurt. What did I miss?
Apparently, what I missed was a soft skill called cultural etiquette.
Cultural etiquette is a combo of cultural awareness & etiquette.
Etiquette means that you aim to be relational — you are aware of your interconnectedness with others, engaged, centered, clear, generous, humble and kind. At its core, etiquette communicates your intention to cooperate with others.
Cultural awareness, also sometimes referred to as cross-cultural sensitivity or simply cultural sensitivity, is the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of other cultures and others’ cultural identities.
Cultural etiquette is what you call the codes of behavior that rule different cultures — in other words, what’s acceptable and what isn’t in a society. It is also what would have warned me that, in Japan, gifts should always be wrapped. That, in China, the recipient may make a show of refusing the offer, but presenting associates with a gift is in fact essential. Last but not least, cultural etiquette would have made clear to me that, when in Italy, giving a business colleague a gift is inappropriate- unless the relationship has become close.
You know how everybody always keeps saying that traveling broadens the mind? It does- but it’s a result of the “culture shock” that travellers experience when faced with cultural differences. My mind was definitely broadened by this epic- yet quite comic- failure of mine. But I kept wishing I knew before.
Apparently, I am not the only confused person that experienced working with colleagues from different cultures as a minefield. Even Bill Gates hadn’t done his homework when he shook hands with the South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, while keeping his left hand in his pocket (a sign of disrespect in South Korea).
But there are things you can do to make up for your cluelessness. You can ask. You can prepare. You can even be trained in cultural sensitivity, taking up a cross-cultural awareness training.
Whether it’s localising your website, heading to conduct business abroad- or just meeting new people during a trip, being aware of things such as cultural, religious, moral, behavioural and linguistic differences is crucial.
Now, imagine having that essential knowledge from an early age. Growing up in a world that’s getting smaller every day, today’s youth is getting accustomed to technology and communication that create boundary-breaking possibilities at an amazing pace. But are they also getting prepared to celebrate the cultural diversity this process entails? Are they learning to aim for acceptance and understanding in all interactions?
According to Scan Virginia, children as young as two, start to become aware of differences such as gender, ethnicity, and disability. It is
also during this time of adolescence that children become sensitive to both the negative and positive attitudes and biases attached to identity as reflected by their family, school, community, or just the world in general.
According to UUA’s general assembly of 2012, it is by the age of 9, that children’s cultural attitudes are set in, and tend to stay constant, unless the child is faced with a life changing event.
This is why it is imperative to teach children cultural competence at the earliest age possible. This is why we need to offer them the kind of life- changing experience of meeting other kids around the globe, and train their soft skills in teams as diverse as possible.
This is why, in Morphoses, we bother enough to do all the extra miles it takes to offer children what they shouldn’t miss.
Diversity is the one true thing we have in common. Celebrate it every day.