Media & News

'It's a Wonderful World' with Cultural Diversity & Protocol

Published in the Cincinnati Business Courier. Click here for article. Written by Tiffany L. Adams, CELI President and Columnist for Cincinnati Business Courier


Why do the Chinese prefer less personal space between people and how should you respond? Why do India, Central and South American cultures have a more relaxed, flexible sense of time? Why is it offensive to exchange business cards with the left hand? What do you do when Muslims greet you by holding their hand over their heart instead of shaking hands? Why is it best not to use any hand gestures in cross-cultural interactions?

Years ago, a decent IQ is all that was needed to succeed. Later, EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and IQ were the formulas for success. Today, the perfect trifecta is IQ, EQ, and now CQ (Cultural Intelligence). CQ is defined as one’s level of effectiveness working across cultures. Packaging these three together and tying a big bow around them called, International Protocol, will open doors for successful global relations. Edward T. Hall, renowned anthropologist and scholar, eloquently stated:

“The single greatest barrier to business success is one erected by culture.”

Cultural differences can cause misunderstandings, negative judgments, and offensive reactions. Our world is shrinking, borders are disappearing, and we are now one global village rich with intercultural relations. There is a revolution of accessibility taking place. We can thank the advancement of technology and transportation, population migrations, and the globalization of trade for this revolution of accessibility. However, progress comes at a price and causes growing pains at times. If we don’t start exercising patience, becoming curious, and taking the time to understand cultural differences, we will undermine teamwork, productivity, and trust. Although it may be challenging to adopt the style of a different culture, making even minor adjustments can produce a powerful difference in how messages are received. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was brilliant in displaying his understanding of this skill when he spoke in 2014 at Tsinghua University, Beijing. After four years of learning Mandarin, he used self-deprecating humor (Chinese appreciate modesty) and delivered his speech in Mandarin, which was wildly embraced by his Chinese audience since he made a concerted effort to understand their culture.  Admittedly, most of us don’t have the time to learn an entire foreign language, but what a difference it would make if we learned even a few key phrases in another language. It would melt borders, win minds, and open hearts.

Cultural gaps can be bridged with international protocol.  International protocol is the code to global respect that blends diplomacy, cultural competency, understanding, and sensitivity. It is the pressure valve that relieves the tensions building from frustrating interactions where each party feels misunderstood. International protocol isn’t about simply memorizing a list of etiquette “dos and don’ts” of different cultures. Like an onion, it’s about meticulously peeling back the layers of culture, one by one, and asking WHY. Why is a person’s ethnicity, religion, education, history, generation, gender, and geography/region influencing their behavior and decision making? What is it about these cultural layers that cause foreign counterparts to feel so strongly about the honor of their customs, values, and taboos?

Let’s practice by looking at a few of the introductory questions: Instead of feeling unsettled when a Chinese counterpart stands closer than what you’re accustomed to, ASK WHY. China is the most densely populated country in the world with 1.3 billion citizens so privacy and personal space are at a premium. The proper protocol is crucial. Be patient and avoid pulling back or stepping backwards out of respect for that culture.

Never use the left hand in exchanging business cards. ASK WHY. Research reveals that the left hand is considered unclean in several cultures. The proper protocol which is becoming universally preferred is to use both hands when presenting and receiving a card. Showing this courtesy sets you apart as a refined, world-class citizen.

Avoid using hand gestures when interacting across cultures. ASK WHY. The same gesture in one culture can have a polar meaning in other cultures. Gestures can be considered at best, rude, or at worst, vulgar or hostile in different cultures. For example, the time-honored Texas Longhorn football team gesture means in Italy that your wife is cheating on you and, in parts of Africa, it means a curse. The okay gesture means that it’s all good in some cultures but can also mean a private bodily orifice in another.

If we are patient, ASK WHY, and make the effort to respect and adapt, we will find ourselves enjoying respectful and fruitful multi-cultural relations in the global marketplace.  Louis Armstrong’s song comes to mind:

“I see trees of green, red roses too….The colors of rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands saying ‘How do you do?’  And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” 

We can all play a part. Let’s turn cultural diversity into cultural unity, because after all, it IS a wonderful world and we want to keep it that way.