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Cultural Codes

In the '80s, when Japan's powerful economy made it a lucrative place to do business, stories of deals falling through due to some inadvertent cultural faux-pas - disrespectfully slipping a newly received business card into one's back pocket, for example - led to the proliferation of Japanese-style management seminars and courses. Hollywood even addressed the issue in the 1986 film Gung Ho, starring Michael Keaton as the harried go-between for his American co-workers and the Japanese managers who had taken over a U.S.-based car manufacturing plant.
October 1, 2002

In the ’80s, when Japan’s powerful economy made it a lucrative place to do business, stories of deals falling through due to some inadvertent cultural faux-pas – disrespectfully slipping a newly received business card into one’s back pocket, for example – led to the proliferation of Japanese-style management seminars and courses. Hollywood even addressed the issue in the 1986 film Gung Ho, starring Michael Keaton as the harried go-between for his American co-workers and the Japanese managers who had taken over a U.S.-based car manufacturing plant.

Today, it’s common knowledge that the prudent thing to do when conducting business in another country is to bone up on some basic cultural differences – at the very least, one should learn how to greet someone upon first meeting. Although a simple handshake is the universally accepted business gesture, the following culturally unique greetings may make a new acquaintance – business or otherwise – feel more at home:

It’s in your hands

Western handshake etiquette dictates that the greeting method be brief. New York-based consulting firm Etiquette International recommends a firm, but not bone-crushing, shake of about three seconds that is accompanied by eye contact. In the Philippines, however, business people prize a limp handshake over a firm one. Malaysians employ the salame gesture, in which both hands touch the other person’s, then are brought back to the breast. The left hand is placed under the right elbow when people from Zambia extend their right hand to shake another’s. Finally, in Belize, handshaking involves the pressing together of fists, rather than the sliding together of hands.

Take a bow

The bow is the traditional greeting of many Asian countries. In Japan, the bow, or ojigi, requires close observation in order to be reciprocated properly. Bowing to a common depth is important, since the depth of your bow indicates the status of the other person in relation to you. The Japanese lower their eyes as they bow and keep the palms of their hands flat against their thighs. The Chinese also greet each other with a bow or nod of the head. In India, the bow is known as namaste, and the palms of the hands are clasped together as though praying, while the greeter bends or nods. In Sri Lanka, the palms of the hands are placed together under the chin before a slight bow, and in Thailand people greet one other with a wai – with palms of the hands placed together, elbows down and the head slightly bowed.

Sealed with a kiss

Kissing is a non-standard business greeting and, in most cases, is thoroughly inappropriate. But, in some industries (such as entertainment) puckering up is perfectly acceptable – an exception to the rule. It’s not all sloppy smooching – kissing etiquette varies widely among cultures. Both the Russian and Egyptian kissing traditions involve three kisses, on alternate cheeks (left, right, left). Italians practice the four-kiss model (twice on each cheek) and in Mexico, they greet each other with only one kiss (you can choose which cheek is more kissable). Ecuadorian women greet one another with a medio abrazo, a sort of partial hug, and when the Maori of New Zealand meet, they press their noses together, in a custom called hongi.

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