If ever there was a lesson in the importance of understanding culture in business, it would be watching the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
On one side of the table, we have Trump imploring assembled press to take pictures that make him and Kim look “nice and handsome, and thin, and perfect”.
On the other side of the table, Kim’s face is a picture of bemusement.
A simple joke, you might say, nothing there to offend, but therein is the essence of culture.
What can seem an innocuous joke or offhand comment to a person of one particular culture can be seen as gross impertinence by another.
Observing this interaction, we realise just how imperative it is to gain an understanding of different cultures to help you at work.
A manner of speaking
Manners are a good place to start, as this is one area where culture can vary significantly.
For Kim, his culture is one whereby manners and deference are of prime importance.
As an isolationist nation, visitors to North Korea are expected to demonstrate their respect and admiration for Kim as supreme leader.
There are very strict controls around lifestyles, so for Kim, a head of state meeting would be no time for levity. For Trump on the other hand, a born and bred US citizen, humour is an acceptable means of building rapport.
In effect, when two cultures collide, we have two sets of expectations for how the meeting will pan out. Understanding other cultures gives you an insight into what their expectations might be.
To belch, or not to belch?
Etiquette extends to almost everything, from dining to gift-giving.
It is understood that after their initial meeting, Trump and Kim attended a three-course working lunch, and like international meetings, attending business dinners is something that many of us will have to do in the course of our careers now.
During a visit to Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine didn’t realise that belching after eating was a cultural habit that demonstrated appreciation of the food.
Completely oblivious to this, my friend persisted in pardoning the host each and every time they belched, going as far as to ask if they had given themselves indigestion.
Just another example of two cultures not understanding each other.
Even small seemingly inconsequential actions can have dire consequences for relations across cultures.
For example, standing serving chopsticks upright in the rice bowl is a symbol of death in China that is sure to silence an entire table, while using your index finger to summon a waiter in Hong Kong is the equivalent of rudely clicking your fingers to a waiter in the UK.
Culture is so embedded in our lives and behaviours that we think nothing of it. It is only when presented with other cultures that we gain an appreciation for difference.
Body language too is an aspect of culture that has huge opportunity for miscommunication.
Trump was very demonstrative with his body language, using his arms to further express his sentiment. But in east Asia, body language is used more delicately. The culture has a less direct style of communication – so you have to look to body language and tone of voice to interpret what is actually being said.
Culture can present an etiquette minefield, littered with potential traps that have the potential to lead to quite devastating consequences.
With a little preparation and understanding, though, this is one minefield that you can cross successfully.