Mind Your Manners

By Heather Nalbone, The Washington Diplomat – 09/02/2004 – 12:00am


Rising Demand for Etiquette Training Spurred by Growing Global Market

Don’t pick your teeth at the dinner table. Don’t slouch. Make sure your handbag is tucked away next to you in an unobtrusive place. If you drop your fork, don’t pick it up. Leave it on the floor and ask the server to bring you another one. When finished eating, fold your napkin loosely and place it on the left side of your plate.

The phrases would appear to be part of a manners course for school-age children. In fact, they’re part of an “Eti-Quiz” that’s intended for corporate executives to test their knowledge on the dos and don’ts of business etiquette.

In the diplomatic community, where every word and action can count, protocol is key. Neglecting cultural codes of conduct could be the difference between a successful business encounter and a damaging blunder. Asking what a person does as a conversation starter, for instance, or launching head-on into a business meeting without some small talk first could be a landmine in some countries.

Learning proper business etiquette in one’s native country can be tough enough, so when cultures mix and mingle, the task becomes even more complicated. President Bush learned this in February when he failed to remove his gloves before shaking the hands of Slovakian dignitaries—a major no-no in the country that was aired live and became an international news story for days.

In many countries, teaching good manners has been a part of Foreign Service training for years. That training is now stretching into the general business and corporate sector. This is especially true in the United States, where awareness of the need for manners and intercultural understanding began to skyrocket following a growth of anti-American sentiment since the Iraq war. For instance, business at the Protocol School of Palm Beach, where the Eti-Quiz comes from, has tripled since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As a result, a growing number of corporations and governments are stepping up expenditures for courses and training programs that promise to educate on cultural sensitivities. Etiquette courses offered by the Lett Group, a leader in the business, cost upward of $425 per person for full-day courses.

The rising demand for such training has been spurred largely by an evolving global marketplace, not to mention advancements in technology that have created an onslaught of new mannerisms that would have been foreign to all nations during the Emily Post era. One of the newest, most universal instigators of bad manners was first addressed in 2002 when Sprint PCS collaborated with Palm Beach Protocol School’s founder Jacqueline Whitmore to introduce the first annual Cell Phone Courtesy Month.

“You always hear horror stories about the problems cell phones cause,” Whitmore said in a statement. “But phones don’t cause problems. People do. There’s an appropriate time and place to use wireless phones.”

Working with Whitmore, Sprint put out some of the world’s first guidelines on polite wireless use. Among them was the suggestion that cell phone users should avoid displaying anger during a public call, speaking in a tone that’s louder than normal conversational volume, and taking calls during meetings or in restaurants and other busy places.

The confusion surrounding proper cell phone usage is a conundrum faced by all nations, but rude behavior of this kind is a lesser evil when compared to the more egregious, region-specific violations of cultural sensitivity that can occur (see sidebar).

“The more you get to know an individual or a specific culture, the more you can come to appreciate the dance that takes place between two parties,” said Shelby Scarbrough, president of Practical Protocol, LLC.

“Do you endanger a relationship if you shake hands with a subordinate in a company or delegation before the senior member? Sometimes. Do you run the risk of offending a prospective business partner if you ask about their wife? What if you don’t ask about their wife? Is that considered rude? Sometimes. This is what makes the world of intercultural relationships so fascinating.”

Being successful in another culture, Scarbrough said, requires doing some homework on a country’s specific practices before a scheduled encounter takes place. However, there are some standard rules of etiquette that apply in many regions throughout the world. Handshakes or bows in the business world are big, as are written thank-you notes after a meeting takes place.

“The most important part is caring about the other person,” Scarbrough said. “That’s really what it all comes down to. A lot of foibles can be forgiven if it seems you really just didn’t know what to do.”

Social To-Dos and Taboos

When it comes to business etiquette in the diplomatic community, pitfalls are everywhere. What’s acceptable in one country may be considered rude in another, and being unaware of a culture’s norms can be the most egregious faux pas.

Here are some of the big ones according to “Business Etiquette for Dummies” by Sue Fox:

—The “OK” sign (common in the United States) is considered offensive in many Latin American countries, as is putting one’s feet on the table.
—Putting your hands on your hips signals a challenge in Argentina. In India, it is considered rude.
—In Mexico, putting your hands in your pockets is considered impolite.
—Eating with your left hand in Muslim countries is symbolically dirty. In France, Germany and Austria, having one’s hands below the table while dining is considered impolite.
—Punctuality is prized in Turkey and Israel, where being late is a sign of disrespect. In other Mediterranean countries, meetings tend to begin late.
—In Muslim countries, inquiring about a host’s wife or daughter is rude. In India, where familial relationships are highly valued, conversations about family members are welcomed.
—It is rude to refuse dinner invitations when conducting business in many European countries. It is even more insulting to refuse culinary items presented for the meal.
—In the Netherlands, France and Belgium, offering wine to the host as a gift insinuates that the host’s cellar is lacking.
—Unless initiated by the host, it is rude to talk business over lunch in the Czech Republic, Italy and Greece.
—Asking what a person does for a living as a conversation starter can be a serious mistake in Europe.
—In Greece, showing one’s palms is considered offensive.
—Displaying the soles of one’s feet or shoes is discourteous in Turkey and Arabic countries, as is openly disagreeing with someone.

Heather Nalbone is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

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