Why Global Mobility Managers Need to Know What Politeness Means in Different Cultures

Politeness varies in different cultures, and so-called common courtesy may not be as common after all. One foreign national’s act of respect may translate as rudeness to another, and vice-versa. This is a nuance that the more open companies in Silicon Valley have learned. 

A global mobility manager should always keep up with the nuances of what is proper and what is not in every country they visit or any national they interact with. They should also communicate what they have discovered to their assignees, or risk losing them to reactions that can range from confusion, bafflement, to subdued outrage. A missed cue or a misinterpreted handshake or gesture can also have dire consequences on a business deal or an important negotiation.

As Culture Wizard illustrates, the manner of giving a set of instructions to a team is not similar in many countries. In one setting, omitting the words like “Please” or “Kindly do this” can be seen as arrogance and offensive; as a result, the team members will not cooperate with the leader (who is a foreigner) or take their sweet time doing so. 

On the other hand, using a lot of verbal preamble — instead of just giving the instructions outright — will be seen as inefficient or lazy in another city. In that particular case, the team members might lose their respect for their assignee-team leader  — and just wing the project on their own.

Here are some acts done in other societies that are intended to be respectful and friendly, but might still brush the uninitiated the wrong way.

China: If a Chinese national makes an observation about a person’s weight, behavior, appearance or mannerism, this should be taken as a mere statement of fact, and not one of rude judgment. The Chinese national does not mean anything derogatory in that statement, even if they casually mention that the assignee has gained a few pounds. Tip to the global mobility manager: take it in stride, and move on.

France: Leave the famous Dutch treat to the country of its origin. In a lunch or dinner meeting, the bill is never split between host and guest in France. Either one offers to pay — and then decide which of them will do so. In this setting, the global mobility manager or assignee can foot the bill or graciously let the French national assume it. The apparently more cost-effective alternative would be considered an insult.

India: It’s not just the French who are fashionably late. Indian nationals can arrive 15 to 30 minutes late for a dinner or lunch — any meeting for that matter. In a culture where relationships are valued, and small talk is a path to building friendships, tardiness is far from considered rude. Lesson to the global mobility manager and their assignee: if the Indian host is running late, now one knows why.

Korea: The absence of any kind of touching is considered one of the most courteous acts a global mobility manager can extend in this Asian country. That is because Koreans value their personal space a lot. Let them initiate any kind of hand contact or tactile movement, even if it is just a handshake. Refraining from doing so tells them that you are leaving them that honor. Korean women in particular only nod in greeting. 

Russia:  While most Westerners avoid drinking on the job as a matter of rule, Russians can feel affronted if you turn down their offer of a drink. You might feel a bit of a shock if it’s alcoholic, and poured in the middle of a meeting. Consider yourself warned, and make sure you’ve had a heavy lunch or dinner prior to that meet. That’s one way to avoid your susceptibility to the spirit of the beverage.