Years ago, invited to the prestigious offices of a very important businessman in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss some possible new business for me and my new public relations company. I made sure to arrive early to demonstrate how diligent and enthusiastic I was to meet with him. When I arrived, I checked in with his receptionist, who was all smiles and said, “Mr. [businessman] will be with you ‘just now.’” I felt so special that she knew my name, and sounded as though they were enthusiastically waiting for me as well. She asked me to take a seat in the lobby on a comfortable-looking couch and I did.
I sat, and waited. I read a magazine and waited — and waited, and waited – for nearly half an hour! No one came for me. So, I sheepishly walked back up to the receptionist and asked very politely, “Is [he] still expecting to meet with me? You said he’d be with me ‘just now.” Her smile turned to a growl as she responded, “He WILL be with you just now!”
What I hadn’t learned was that ‘just now’ in South African culture means about 20-30 minutes. When they say ‘now-now’ – that means about 5 minutes. And ‘urgently’ still means you'll be waiting a few minutes. And in my experience, South Africa was the fastest moving, compared to some of the other countries I’ve visited. In Senegal, I waited up to 2 hours for a meeting with a political official, and in Israel and Spain, time is just as relative.
While our bodies contain the same DNA structure and at our core, people have more similarities than differences, there are cultural adaptations that need to be made while visiting foreign countries. Sometimes the cultural nuances we all have can make people smile and appreciate you, while others, place people on the defense or even anger them. I learned the hard way that things as small as hand gestures can be extremely offensive, whether you intend them to be or not.
When I was living in South Africa, I innocently motioned with my finger for one of my staff members (who was originally from the DR Congo – former Zaire) to come join me. She was deeply offended by this gesture and she admonished me for it, asking me not to call her “like a dog”. I was shocked. I had no idea that's what it meant for her. I apologized to her immediately and tried my best to remember never to do that again.
There are also words and colors that can be considered offensive by certain cultures. While some words may be used jokingly within the family of certain ethnic groups (as they are in the U.S.), they are unacceptable if used by outsiders. In China, you should not give a person a gift wrapped in white paper since it denotes death, as does the number ‘4’. Instead, one should use bright colors such as red or a gold.
What’s important for each of us interacting with people from different cultures is to develop a sense of cultural awareness and understanding to help you communicate better with them. Cultural competence, cultural literacy and cultural fluency are personal relationship tools that can make or break your success in today’s multicultural environment, in the U.S. and abroad — especially when doing business or studying in foreign countries.
While many people all over the world have adopted some parts of American culture, including slang, music and art (especially once they visit the U.S.), most maintain their own cultures, listen to their native music and have their own social icons, heroes and sheroes. Regrettably, some inconsiderate American tourists abroad have given rise to the stereotype of the "Ugly American," one who expects everyone to speak English and behave the way they're used to seeing people behave in America, regardless of whether they’re actually in the U.S. Don't fall into that stereotype. Instead, aim to understand the culture of those with whom you're seeking to visit or do business.
Below are a few tips to help to develop cultural competence:
1. Learn greetings: Try to learn some basic greetings in the local language, such as “hello,” “thank you” and “goodbye”. You should also understand whether protocol approves of a handshake or a hug between a man and a woman, a bow such as in some Asian countries, or a kiss on the cheek as in some Middle Eastern countries. First impressions set the tone for future business relationships.
2. Pay attention to your appearance: Learn which colors are acceptable and which are offensive or have different meanings than what you may assume. Watch the attire of the locals such as women being covered to varying degrees.
3. Learn the language: Read up on what topics acceptable and those you should not discuss during social chatting such as politics or religion or tribal languages in a rival part of a country. One reason for learning the foreign languages of someone you’re working with or want to do business with is that most people ‘think’ in their native tongues, which impact the meaning of your conversation with them.
4. Learn table manners/dining protocol: Practice eating with chopsticks instead of having to ask for a fork and a knife when visiting China. You may eat some things with your hands in countries in Africa.
5. Know the gift-giving rules: Make sure you understand what kind of gift is appropriate and when the appropriate time is to give the gift. Know when someone will be expecting a gift and when it will be offensive not to give one, and be mindful of what unintentionally offensive messages you may be giving by using certain colors for wrapping paper. You don't want to be the person who presented a host in China with a clock wrapped in white paper.
Until next time:
“May the curiosity of life keep you aware,
The power of love push you forward,
And may the love of life,
Keep you living in the Spirit of "Fearless Living!”
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, an international public affairs consulting firm founded in South Africa in 1994 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer. Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in more than 13 countries. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaWilson_dc.