After a successful meeting, the moderator gives his team a thumbs up. At a business luncheon, someone responds to a waiter they want 2 plates with their index and middle finger. The presenter gives the “OK” signal to her slide advancer at a big conference.
These are small innocuous motions for a homogeneous work group, but in today’s global corporate world with multicultural teams, these gestures could be considered downright rude. Different regions and cultures interpret various hand gestures differently – what is a positive encouragement in one culture could easily be a sign of disrespect in another. Its significance may depend on regional, cultural, ethnic, and generational differences in addition to intention.
For the three examples above, all are considered negative in particular company or country – certainly not the communication that was intended.
You don’t have to be a frequent traveler to see the wisdom of cultural awareness. Most organizations comprise of people of various cultures, even if they were all born and raised in the same country. Large, global organizations need people of varying backgrounds and behaviors to understand one another and work together. Individuals have that same need, especially when their success in a project or a career depends upon their ability to work as a team or to lead one.
There are so many facets of cultural norms, and each likely carry additional nuances for an individual member. Appearance and dress are elements, as are habits of speech and expression, perspectives on time, ways of thinking, prioritizing, explaining or illustrating. Some cultures are direct and others, indirect; acceptable levels of formality may range from casual to ceremonial in different scenarios. Some focus on the individual while others value group needs. Beliefs concerning power or hierarchies may differ, as may the ways in which respect is shown.
How can you know what is acceptable? In part, your experience contributes to your knowledge base. Places you have lived or worked and people you know or have known can help you understand a culture's dimensions. Your common sense and powers of observation help, too, whether the culture is corporate or foreign or both.
Research is also your friend. An Internet search of cultural differences will provide all the information you can stand along with pictures, videos, articles – whatever your preferred form of learning, you can find it. The hard part is happening right now; becoming aware not just that cultural differences exist, but that they’re worth learning about and preparing for potential scenarios.
If you are in a situation where you do not know your audience, don't take a chance. Keep your gestures as neutral as possible by not waving your arms above the shoulders or below the waist. Make sure you use your whole hand to gesture, using open palms with your fingers together. This is particularly important in larger format events – a finger sized gesture won’t be seen anyway. Remember to also take it slowly – hold gestures for a moment or two instead of waving or moving too quickly.
Be sure to also watch your speech and use of idioms – what may be a commonplace expression for you may not resonate for another. Many English language idioms come from sport, pop culture, or other media not likely universal in popularity.
Don’t forget to be vigilant and watch the conduct of others. Paying attention to how your group, team, or audience is behaving will give great insight into immediately appropriate behaviors. Remember that knowledge is power.