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Etiquette at Work

What’s OK here may be rude in foreign countries

Are you traveling abroad for business? You will be entering a different culture where customs differ from those in the USA. The importance of being on time, the way you eat food, greetings — these are just a few examples of the customs that you should be aware of before you leave.

For example, something as simple as a hand gesture can put you in hot water in another country. Before you leave, do some homework. Here are some of the hand gestures common to American culture that you should be careful making abroad:

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 The thumbs up signal means great, or everything is good in the United States and some other parts of the world. But in the Middle East, and especially in Iran, it is akin to suggesting the person shove it you know where. Your “everything’s good” would bring your business to an abrupt close.

 The V gesture — middle and forefinger held up while other fingers are clasped over your palm — has very different meanings depending on if you make the gesture with your palm facing away from you or toward you. In Britain, the gesture with the palm toward you means the same as a thumbs up gesture in Iran. However, make the gesture with your palm facing away from you and it is widely viewed to mean victory or peace.

 The OK sign — the ends of your thumb and forefinger touch to make a circle — means just that in some cultures, but in Brazil and Turkey among other places it is similar to an extended middle finger.

 A person at the University of Texas at Austin may be a fan of the “Hook ’em Horns” gesture, which is made by holding both the pinkie and forefinger straight up. Unfortunately, that gesture used in a Mediterranean country would be considered vulgar.

 Even pointing with a finger can be a problem. In fact, the finger point is so universally considered to be rude that you should avoid it wherever you travel. If you must point, do so with your hand, not just your finger.

Even though you didn’t intend to insult anyone on your trip, when you inadvertently make one of these gestures in a culture where it can be taken the wrong way, you may end up hurting your chances to be successful.

E-mail questions about business etiquette to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com.
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