Magazine article Management Today

Toujours la Politesse

Magazine article Management Today

Toujours la Politesse

Article excerpt

Assume at your peril that what's considered correct behaviour in one country is acceptable in another. As Richard D Lewis argues, there is no such thing as international etiquette

In our own culture we are provided with a code for behaviour. There is right and wrong, proper and improper, respectable and disreputable. We are also fully cognisant of the particular taboos which society imposes. A problem arises, however, when we go abroad. As a representative of our country, we would like to show what good manners we have. Unfortunately, what are good manners in one country can be seen as eccentricity or bad manners in another, as anyone who blows his nose in a crisp white handkerchief in front of a Japanese will soon find out. International travellers face a dilemma. Should they stick to what in their own country would be considered impeccable behaviour and risk making a faux pas, or imitate those they're visiting and risk making fools of themselves?

Foreigners' sincerity, and patent lack of experience in such matters, take them some way to resolving this dilemma -- for a while. Europeans, Asians and Americans meet regularly on business and at conferences and manage to avoid giving offence, by and large, by being their honest selves. Americans are genial, the French gallant, Brits reasonable, while the Japanese smile a lot. But all give the impression of sincerity and the odd dinner or business meeting can be carried off well in the euphoria generated by the host's generosity and the guest's appreciative attentiveness. At such initial gatherings, faux pas are ignored, even considered rather charming.

The question of correct comportment in a foreign country only becomes pressing when an ongoing business relationship is involved. A protracted host-guest relationship places greater strain on the tolerance and patience thresholds of both parties as time goes by. The American habit of sprawling in chairs at business conferences may seem friendly and disarming to Brits, but it would put Germans in a constant state of unease either in their own offices or in an American's. Mexican unpunctuality may be easily forgiven once, but it becomes unacceptable if repeated. Latin loquacity may at first be engaging for Finns and Swedes, but subject it to them again and it will soon drive them up the wall. …

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