Pity the American who travels abroad. Not only is the world full of foreigners – many of them miserably ungrateful for the civilising balm of Starbucks and Diet Coke – but it is a minefield for the socially unwary.
In the States, when it comes to meeting and greeting nothing could be simpler. You just holler “Howdy!” or “Hi!” and buckle down to the feast of reason and flow of soul that makes the world go round, or at any rate that part of it that is American (which, let’s face it, is the part that counts). But stray overseas and life becomes complicated.
For reasons partly to do with their history and partly through their simply not being American, foreigners do things differently. Some shake hands, some bow, some kiss, some go in for permutations of the above, and all are conditioned, like it or not, to bridle when their codes of politeness are breached. So what passes for honest-to-God goodwill back home can in the eyes of a stranger in another land be mistaken for brash presumption.
But few can doubt that whatever God’s Own Country might lack in sweet refinement it makes up for in resourcefulness. No American could be accused of not trying. And it is in this spirit of willingness to learn that a “professional services” company called Aquent offers its guide for American business people venturing abroad.
Aquent gives a brief, country-by-country guide on how to make a good impression on the very first meeting. What is most noticeable about the advice is its precision and attention to detail. As we shall see, if the rules are to be followed successfully it helps if the business traveller is carrying both a tape measure and a stop watch.
So in Singapore, the visiting American should bear in mind that handshakes are the most common greeting. But it is not quite as simple as that: “a gentle squeeze lasting 10 to 12 seconds is ideal. Catch your counterpart’s eyes for a second, then lower your head and look down.”
In Canada, “direct, but not too intense eye contact is acceptable, especially to convey sincerity. The standard distance between two people should be two feet. French Canadians, however, may stand slightly closer.”
That’s the French for you. In France, you greet people with a handshake or a kiss. “The number of kisses varies from 2-4, depending on the region.” (The region of the country, that is, not the region of the body.) “The intensity varies from a lip-smacking smooch to the ‘air kiss’ and is a matter of style. Handshakes are firm with a single up-and-down motion. A limp hand inspires instant suspicion.”
What a relief then to get over to London, England, where “personal space is important and people can feel uncomfortable if someone stands too close to them. Touching is generally avoided.” So, too, apparently is speech – at least until you’ve got to know each other. “When people are already acquainted, verbal greetings are used.”
In truth, it is more complicated than that. According to convention, the verbal greeting on first meeting is “How do you do?” But according to the late Lynda Lee-Potter it is the most dreadful social solecism to say: “Pleased to meet you”. This, she insisted, was almost as bad as “pardon” or “toilet”. So anyone who professed to be pleased to meet Ms Lee-Potter would soon have cause to change his mind.
Life is simpler in Spain, where the American visitor is advised to “extend a brief but firm handshake, while maintaining eye contact. Women sometimes lightly embrace, then touch cheeks while lightly kissing the air.”
In Australia, where men are men and women are Sheilas, “men refrain from being too physically demonstrative with women.” (Is there a country in the world where men are encouraged to be too physically demonstrative with women? Well, there are parts of Milton Keynes where on a Friday night members of both sexes may grasp each other’s buttocks without occasioning adverse comment.)
Anyone who has tried to learn the golf swing from an instruction manual will feel at home with Aquent’s guide to greeting in Japan. “If you are greeted with a bow, return with a bow as low as the one you received. Keep your eyes low and your palms flat next to your thighs”.
In the Czech Republic, the use of forenames without permission is seen as insulting or demeaning.
In France, a wave of the hand or laconic verbal acknowledgement may be received as a snub or an insult.
In the Netherlands, while it is acceptable to wave if greeted from a distance, it is impolite to shout.
All in all, the shrewd American will probably stay at home, content to be himself. There, he can wave his hand, shout “Say! How do you do?” from any distance and be as laconic as he likes, and no one will take offence.
Still, the very existence of Aquent’s guide is a corrective to those vicious anti-Americans who hold that the most you can expect from a visiting Yank is to have him put a pair of ladies’ panties on your head and a rifle butt in your groin. Americans really do mean well. So if you happen to meet one, lightly brush your cheek against his, lightly kiss the air, and shake his hand firmly for seven seconds. He will expect nothing less.