Avoiding Cultural Faux Pas in an International Context: Perceptions of Touching

Matthew MacLachlan

17 Apr 2010

Touching is perhaps one of the most dangerous aspects of non-verbal communication and one that is often misinterpreted.  While touching someone on the arm or shoulder during a conversation can be accepted and encouraged in some cultures, it can be regarded as highly inappropriate and nearing sexual harassment in other cultures in which it can be interpreted as sexual harassment or an invasion of personal space.

The vast majority of cultures however have a complex approach to this particular question.  In most Islamic countries for instance, touching a woman can be completely taboo but it can be perfectly acceptable for men to hold hands in public as this is regarded as a sign of friendship.  When and who you can touch, whether a handshake or encouraging touch on the shoulder, can be hard to understand for people who are unfamiliar with cultures where Islam plays an important role.

Another good example of where touch can be misinterpreted or confusing is in France.  When doing business in France you may find that your counterparts maintain a high level of formality and will not have very much physical contact.  The only time French have any physical contact at work is when they greet and say goodbye, typically with a firm handshake.

In more informal situations the French will usually greet others with a kiss on both cheeks, sometimes twice and sometimes four times depending on the region and relationship.  Even men can be seen greeting other men with kisses on the cheek provided they are close relatives or friends.  Once again, this kind of behaviour can be puzzling for international assignees who have just arrived in France, leading to critical incidents or awkward situations that may prevent them from effectively adapting to the new culture.

Knowing and deciphering  different non-verbal behaviours and gestures is crucial for anyone working across cultures, whether as an international assignee, global manager or team leader.  Cross cultural awareness training courses like Living and Working in France[c2]  or Living and Working in Saudi Arabia can increase your understanding of non-verbal communication and other cultural differences to ensure you have the most relevant cultural tools and strategies for a successful international experience.



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