Touching is arguably one of the most sensitive aspects of interacting, whether in a business or social context. When interactions take place with people from different cultural backgrounds, touching becomes even more difficult to grasp as the very perception of touching and the meaning behind physical contact can differ widely across cultures. Working effectively across cultures requires the ability to understand what kind of physical contact is appropriate and when in different contexts.
Simon Kuper, a British expatriate living in Paris recently shared several anecdotes of experiences he had visiting friends in the UK in an article published in the Financial Times. After living in Paris for some time, he and his wife grew accustomed to many French habits. When he returned to the UK he found that his British family and friends were surprised when he greeted them in the typical French way with a kiss on each cheek. Interested in this concept, Kuper also looked at how people greet each other in the US and discovered many differences when compared to French customs and behaviours around physical contact.
Based on his experience, Kuper suggests that the French tend to “sexualise” initial meetings between people even if no romance is involved between the participants. There is no such feeling when Brits or Americans greet each other. In fact, Brits and Americans appreciate having personal space and will tend to avoid touch as much as possible, except with close family or friends who they may greet with a small hug or kiss on the cheek. Anything beyond this may be perceived as an invasion of personal space and could cause offense or an unintended reaction.
This concept of personal space might be difficult to understand when working across cultures. A physical gesture which is considered appropriate in one culture might be frowned upon in another and vice-versa. Breaching someone’s personal space might cause uneasiness or misunderstanding that could lead to cross-cultural clashes or incidents.
From how you greet someone or console a team member to how you congratulate an acquaintance, it’s important to develop your understanding of how to communicate physically to avoid any cultural faux-pas or cultural misinterpretation when working across cultures. A Working Effectively across Cultures programme is a great first step towards understanding how you are perceived and how you need to adapt your behaviours in a global context so that you have the right impact.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2011