I recently wrote an article on the kissing as a greeting, when you work internationally.
In the UK, we don’t have a rule about kissing hello. Generally speaking, I think we just make it up and improvise. At the same time, some behaviours are emerging as accepted or expected. The question is: what is acceptable and where?
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
I don’t know much about customs in Rome but I know a bit about Spain because I studied Spanish at school and university, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Spain.
One thing I love about Spain is that everyone seems to kiss you hello. When I first noticed this, it seemed so friendly and welcoming. I’d receive two kisses from people I’d never met before when a mutual friend introduced me. I felt as if they really liked me!
I only later realised that I was seeing this through the filter of my own British culture.
In the UK, a kiss as a greeting is normally with friends or someone you like. So I had put my own Brit interpretation on the kisses and I saw them as a demonstration of friendliness and affection. I only later realised that in Spain this is just a standard hello.
Warning: I was in a social situation and I’m not sure what the norm is in Spanish business circles. So do check if you are doing business in Spain. And don’t expect it to be the same all over the country – see my last blog for surprising facts about Paris.
Cross-cultural behaviour: it is so easy to mis-interpret
Recently I introduced a friend, a young Spanish professional, to my grown-up son. She immediately said hello and lifted her face for two kisses. We all thought “How friendly of her. She feels we are like family.” Again we were putting our British interpretations on her standard Spanish hello!
It was very different when I worked with Norwegians. In Norway, I would often get a “Norwegian hug”, for example after a convivial dinner or meeting . I found it friendly and nice.
Some years ago, one Norwegian professional told me she thought it was “disgusting” to be kissed on the cheek as a greeting. I was rather shocked at hearing this and I didn’t discover if her opinion was shared by others or not. Certainly the Norwegian hug seemed to be very popular in Norway. It doesn’t seem to be obligatory but a matter of choice. And it seems fair to interpret it as a sign of affection or friendliness.
Kissing hello is quite awkward with some of my Japanese friends. I want to show I am delighted to see them but I don’t want them to feel awkward by unwanted physical contact, so I hold back. If I’m kissing everyone else, I’m afraid it looks unfriendly when I only shake their hands. But in Japan, I follow their customs as far as I can.
Does it matter if you get the greeting wrong when you are working abroad?
I remember meeting an international woman recently at a business meeting in the UK. I was rather surprised when she offered her cheek to be kissed by everyone, men and women. We had not met her before so we were surprised, but we all complied with good grace.
Did it matter? No. We all work abroad ourselves so we were conscious of the difficulty in knowing local customs when travelling internationally. We silently empathised so I am sure that we didn’t judge her negatively.
But in another business context, with another group of people, it might have mattered. It could have emphasised the idea “we are different”. When people feel you are different, you need to work harder to build trust.
Knowing how to build trust is a skill
Trust matters enormously in a work situation. If you want to do business across cultures you need to build a genuine relationship of trust as quickly as possible.
It’s a fact that when we feel or know that people are like us, we trust them more quickly and we build a relationship more quickly. Neuroscience findings support this. So in business situations it is important to to find genuine ways to show “I’m like you” when meeting new people who you want to do business with.
International Communication – the etiquette
So, when you are travelling abroad on business, you need to know how to build trust, how to correctly interpret the behaviour of others and use the right behavioural etiquette yourself – for greetings, in meetings and so on.
Equally important is to make sure you know the communication etiquette for global business. Here are 4 golden rules:
- Make your own spoken language easy to understand (the interpreter needs to understand you easily too)
- Listen carefully and show you are a good listener
- Choose words with care so you are sure they are clear, not ambiguous
- Speak clearly (not shouting) and not too fast.
Do all this and your care will be appreciated. You’ll build better relationships. Then you can be confident that business with international partners will flow more smoothly, teamwork will be easier, partnerships will flourish.