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Etiquette at Work

When you go visiting outside US, know the culture

Microsoft founder Bill Gates (inadvertently) touched off an Internet firestorm of opinion simply by how he shook hands while greeting South Korean President Park Geun-hye last Monday. Here’s what happened:

Gates was on a “a visit to build business ties and boost nuclear energy plans” according to an NPR.org blog about the incident. The picture accompanying the blog shows a smiling South Korean president warmly shaking hands with Gates. Gates clearly is giving the president his complete attention and respect. Except for one minor mistake: His left hand is buried deep in his pants pocket. And that is a breach of etiquette in South Korea.

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The blog quotes a story about the incident in the Korea Herald, which explained the faux pas succinctly: “Among Koreans, it is considered disrespectful to put one’s hand in your pocket while shaking another person’s hand.”

The NPR.org blog added that this isn’t the first time Gates has had his left hand firmly in pocket while shaking hands with a head of state. Apparently, he did it with France’s former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the current one, François Hollande.

Etiquette is important because it gives you strategies for handling situations so the focus is on the interaction and building the relationship and doesn’t get side-tracked by a mistake.

In Gates’s case, it is important because the focus should be on the reason he is visiting a head of state. One would expect that he would want to conduct himself in a way that doesn’t require his host to respond to questions about a breach of etiquette.

Gates has no real excuse for this error. Whenever anyone visits another culture, it is respectful to learn basic customs such as greetings. They will appreciate your efforts. Whatever the purpose of the interaction, it will go more smoothly because you made the effort to respect local customs.

Fortunately for Gates this incident is not a deal-breaker. Even the Korea Herald acknowledged: “It is unlikely that the handshake is to become a diplomatic issue, as the president’s office reportedly was unconcerned about Gate’s handshake regardless of the heated discussion online.”

While it is unlikely to be a diplomatic incident, it is a shame that a visit to promote business is waylaid by an avoidable mistake.

Follow Peter Post on Twitter at @PeterLPost.
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