Are you traveling abroad for business? You’ll be entering a different culture where customs differ from those in the USA. The importance of being on time, the way you eat food, greetings—these are just a few examples of the customs in your host country that you should be aware of before you leave.
For example, something as simple as the hand gestures you make without a thought here can put you into hot water in another country. Before you leave on the trip to another country, do some homework on the customs of that country, including hand gestures. Here are some of the hand gestures common to American culture you should be careful making abroad.
- The thumbs up signal means great, everything is good here and in other parts of the world as well. But in the Middle East, and especially in Iran, it is akin to suggesting the person shove it you know where. Your “everything’s good” would bring your business to an abrupt close.
- The V gesture—middle and forefinger held up while other fingers are clasped over your palm—has two very different meanings depending on if you make the gesture with your palm facing away from you or toward you. In Britain the gesture with the palm toward you means the same as a thumbs up gesture in Iran. However, make the gesture with your palm facing away from you and it is widely viewed to mean victory or peace.
- The OK sign—the ends of your thumb and forefinger touch to make a circle—means just that in some cultures, but in Brazil and Turkey among other countries, it is similar to an extended middle finger.
- • A person at the University of Texas at Austin may be a fan of the “hook ‘em horns” gesture which is made by holding both the pinkie and forefinger straight up. The stands at a football game are full of people making the gesture. Unfortunately, that same gesture used in a Mediterranean country would be considered vulgar.
- Even as simple a gesture as pointing with a finger can be a problem. In fact, the finger point is so universally considered to be rude, that you should avoid it wherever you travel. If you must point, do so with your hand, not just your finger.
Even though you didn’t intend to insult anyone on your trip, when you inadvertently make one of these gestures in a culture where it can be taken the wrong way, you may end up hurting your chances to be successful.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
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