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Avoiding a Cross-Cultural Faux Pax!

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Hello readers!how to avoid cultural gaffs when traveling overseas

I’m sure many of you work with businesses and leaders across the globe, either in person or via online communication and social media outreach. Our world is rapidly becoming much smaller, and the customs and nuances from one country to the next can prove a little daunting at times.

In 2010 Michelle Obama mistakenly shook hands with an Indonesian dignitary, unaware that this was improper cultural etiquette. The dignitary practiced a conservative orthodoxy that forbids physical contact between a man and woman who are not related. Most Indonesian Muslims are more moderate, so it was probably tough for Mrs. Obama to know. The dignitary had to apologize to his people for shaking a woman’s hand, and with a bit more briefing Michelle Obama could have avoided an unintentionally awkward situation.  

There are few things we can all do to ensure we’re acting respectful and not committing a faux pas with our colleagues in different cultures. Before your trip, phone call, Skype meeting or even email exchange, try doing some basic research about the other person’s culture. There is a huge reservoir of information online about basic cross-cultural do’s and don’ts.

Even learning the basics of how to greet them, whether shaking hands is acceptable or frowned upon, body language, etiquette during meals ,etc., will help a great deal. Remember, it’s the small things that often make the largest impact. Remember to always show respect for their culture and show deference when necessary – in other words, when in doubt follow their lead. Try not to impose your ways on them, and if an accidental faux pas does happen, just remember to act graciously and be mindful of the situation for the next time!


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Karlin Sloan is the founder and CEO of Karlin Sloan and Company, Ms. Sloan provides organization development consulting, training and executive coaching to clients the U.S., Europe, South America and Asia. She is the author of Smarter, Faster, Better; Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2006) and Unfear (January 2011).
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