Global Village Etiquette
By Sherri Ferris, President and CEO
Protocol Professionals, Inc.

Whether you're doing business abroad, vacationing in a distant land or simply welcoming guests from another culture, with a little research and preparation, accompanied with some sensitivity skills training, you can make a lasting and favorable impression instead of a disastrous one. You never get another chance to make a first impression! In fact, remove the word "foreign" or "foreigner" from your vocabulary because in the dictionary it means "alien" or "not belonging". Better to refer to others as "visitors" or "guests." Here are ten protocol rules on social interaction to keep in mind:

  1. Be patient when building trust in establishing relationships. People from other countries take much longer than Americans and they observe a greater formality than we do. As an example, to build trust, you wouldn't want to ask someone from Great Britain his or her occupation on first meeting.

  2. It is courteous to ALWAYS stand when you are introduced to another person, regardless of cultural background.

  3. Before receiving or meeting an honored guest from abroad, prepare by researching such data as: their population, ethnic and religious composition, official languages, geography, especially the capital and major cities, government structure, national leaders and political parties. Not only will you appear informed but your guest will also be complimented because you took the time to learn something about him/her.

  4. Conversation should avoid all sensitive subjects including religion and politics. The pride that one has in one's culture and tradition are safe topics.

  5. Slow down your speech and don't raise your voice because you think the other person cannot understand you. Have you noticed how people just talk louder to be understood? Volume doesn't usually increase comprehension. People with foreign accents are not necessarily hard of hearing

  6. Even though most people around the world speak English, it's often difficult to understand us, especially if we use slang, buzzwords, idioms, jargon, and lingo. One of my assistants would often tell the Italian Consul General, "Sherri's on another line but she'll give you a buzz back." She never realized that the Italians might think I wanted to take them out for cocktails on the town... It's smart to eliminate phrases like "It's raining cats and dogs" or someone who eats them in their country may just run to the window to watch the miracle!

  7. If interpreters are used, they should meet with the person for whom they are interpreting in advance to learn their language patterns, any special terminology and especially numbers, which could change the whole dimension of things. Remember, interpreters are not translators, so the terms should not be confused. A translator renders what is written into another language. An interpreter does this orally in the presence of the speaker. There is an entire protocol regarding the use of interpreters in terms of where they stand, sit, etc.

  8. Non-verbal interaction cues are extremely important. "Yes" or an affirmative nod often means "Yes I hear you" in Asian cultures, not "Yes I agree". By looking at the interaction through American eyes, you might think you just closed the deal of the century. By avoiding the word "No", some Asians believe they can avoid creating any disharmony, as harmony is a cherished value in these cultures.

  9. Never mimic what you think may be a national gesture. If you are wrong about the meaning of the gesture, the results could mean disaster. For example, the American "OK" sign means money in Japan.

  10. Never slap someone's back, the "good old Joe" American routine. Touching and rules of social distance etiquette vary in other cultures.

Mr. Bill Black, the former State of California Chief of Protocol, aptly defines protocol as "The lubricant that allows two or more moving parts to come together without friction." By becoming more culturally aware, you will show respect for others, gain a greater appreciation for cultural differences and become a smarter "Global Village Ambassador."

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