Try Mind Tools for 7 days FREE Start Trial
Gain essential management and leadership skills
Busy schedule? No problem. Learn anytime, anywhere.
Subscribe to unlimited access to meticulously researched, evidence-based resources.
Join today and take advantage of our 30% offer, available until May 31.
Get 30% off
Gain essential management and leadership skills
Busy schedule? No problem. Learn anytime, anywhere.
Subscribe to unlimited access to meticulously researched, evidence-based resources.
Join today and take advantage of our 30% offer, available until May 31.
Get 30% off
MAIN MENU

Sign-up to our newsletter

Subscribing to the Mind Tools newsletter will keep you up-to-date with our latest updates and newest resources.

Close
Working on it...
Successfully subscribed to the newsletter
Sorry, something went wrong
June 5, 2015

Mind Your (Body) Language!

Keith Jackson

, ,

Share this post:

When dipping a toe into new cultures or visiting a country for the first time, the risk of committing an accidental faux pas is very real.

At best, you suffer mild embarrassment, endure being the butt of a few jokes, and quickly make note of a lesson learned the hard way. In extreme cases, you may cause serious offense that cannot be laughed off as a simple misunderstanding.

It's not just the inexperienced, individual traveler who "slips on the banana skin" of an unintentional faux pas. Sometimes, even multi-national business giants can make inexplicable and expensive gaffes, despite having the resources and expertise available to them so that they'd be "clued up" on the traditions, language and culture of any new market. And global statesmen, well used to striding across the international stage, can also "put their foot in it" with an ill-judged gesture.

Luckily, in my own travels, I have avoided any major faux pas. All I have suffered is a little awkwardness in France, when I offered my hand in greeting to a matronly landlady, but was suddenly pulled in close for three kisses on the cheek!

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, fell foul of a misjudged hand gesture during his 1992 visit to Australia. Thinking he was offering a peace sign, he gave a palm-inwards "V" sign to a group of protesting farmers in Canberra – which is recognized as a crude gesture "Down Under."

But George Bush Sr was outdone on the offending scale by one of his White House predecessors. On a visit to Brazil, then Vice President Richard Nixon hadn't even set foot on the ground when he gave an "A-OK" gesture from the steps of his plane. Unfortunately, it had a spectacularly different, and insulting, meaning in that country!

It's worth remembering that most people will accept and understand that the perceived insult is entirely unintentional, and a swift apology will usually defuse an awkward encounter.

But pre-warned is pre-armed, and our article today, Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Body Language, highlights some of the ways gestures and behaviors can be interpreted in different cultures and different countries.

And the potential for error goes beyond physical gaffes. If you don't do your research into a country or culture, your business can suffer, too.

A lack of homework cost U.S. DIY giant Home Depot® tens of millions of dollars in a failed bid to crack China. It opened 12 stores after its initial 2006 launch during a house-building boom in the country, but it hadn't counted on the Chinese perception of DIY. In the West, DIY is enjoyed by all levels of society but, in China, it is regarded as a sign of poverty and there is status attached in hiring other people to carry out work for you.

Pepsi® might also have benefited from hiring a Chinese translator before exporting its former "Come Alive!" slogan. Legend has it that, in China, the phrase was interpreted as, "Bring your ancestors back from the grave!" It may have caused a few red faces at Pepsi HQ, but it didn't have any reported negative impact on sales.

What’s the worst faux pas you've committed? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of someone else's unintentional insult? Join the discussion below!

Share this post:

3 comments on “Mind Your (Body) Language!”

  1. Lot to learn from this short post - little bit of home work, can save somebody of major major embarrassment.

  2. As I was trying to learn to speak English when I was 19, I asked a university professor who had taken me to visit an apartment she wanted to sublet the following question: "didn't you find my scarf in the apartment?" instead of "did you by any chance find my scarf in the apartment?". My actual question was implying she had found it and kept it...ouch...

    1. Oh my word, Jocelyn - but I'm sure she understood what you meant. I've also had rather embarrassing 'language' moments. Fortunately, the longer the time since the event, the funnier it becomes in retrospect. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Gain essential management and leadership skills

Busy schedule? No problem. Learn anytime, anywhere. Subscribe to unlimited access to meticulously researched, evidence-based resources. Join today and take advantage of our 30% offer, available until May 31.
Get 30% off

You may also like...

November 16, 2023

Digging Into Conflict: How to "Play Nice" at Work

"It leads to what the author calls “assertive play” – not brick-on-skull assertive, but self-confident engagement, where people know they have things to contribute, and stake their claim."- Jonathan Hancock

, ,

October 11, 2023

Accepting Praise – How to Own Your Achievements

There's a lot of advice on giving praise, but how can we accept it gracefully? Mind Tools' Assistant Content Editor, Alice Gledhill, explores why accepting praise can be so difficult.

, ,

September 28, 2023

How to Find a Right-Fit Job: My Expert Interview With André Martin 

For a long-lasting, fulfilling experience at work, it pays to think carefully before applying for a job.

,

© Mind Tools Ltd 2024. All rights reserved. "Mind Tools" is a registered trademark of Mind Tools Ltd.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram