Friday, April 11, 2014

The Etiquette Minefield of Bowing, Hand Gestures and Handshakes

Bill Clinton... A master communicator with his hands.  But what exactly is he communicating?
Are you well-mannered?  Seemingly harmless hand gestures, handshaking and customs like the "okay" sign, the thumbs-up sign, certain colors or types of gifts and even casual greetings, can be entirely misconstrued on soil foreign to your own.  The consequences can range from humiliating embarrassment to downright dangerous.  Even some of the world's most famous and wealthy people are unwittingly caught by the press, exhibiting poor manners when on foreign soil.
Cultural difference, or an act of disrespect?  Korean newspapers attacked the brilliant, but obviously clueless, billionaire Bill Gates for his unaware and casual style, when he shook hands upon meeting the Korean President in 2013.  Photos of the meeting were splashed across the front pages of the country's national newspapers.

Headlines splashed across the globe in April of 2013:

"Bill Gates 'disrespects' South Korea's female president by shaking hands while keeping other in his pocket"!

Bill Gates found himself at the center of a cultural row last year, after he was accused of disrespecting the South Korean president by his 'rude' handshake. The Microsoft founder was heavily criticized by Korean media because he shook President Park Geun-hye's hand, while keeping his left in his trouser pocket.

The JoongAng newspaper wrote: 'Cultural difference, or an act of disrespect?' while others called it a 'disrespectful and casual handshake'.  A one-hand shake is often seen as disrespectful in South Korea and parts of Asia. It is normally reserved for someone younger or a good friend.  

'Perhaps it was his all-American style but an open jacket with hand in pocket? That was way too casual. It was very regretful,' Chung Jin-suk, secretary general at  the Korean National Assembly, was quoted by ABC News as saying.

Korean media reported that Gates has caused similar controversy in the past when meeting the country's leaders.  In 2002, Gates gave a two-handed shake to the late Kim Dae-jung but in 2008 gave President Lee Myung-Bak's a 'disrespectful' handshake. It has led to speculation in South Korea that it was done deliberately and reflects his political preference. 

Since he seems to do it so regularly, website "The Wire" asked if the signature 'Gates handshake' was "Offensive, or Just Weird?"

So what does one do when worried that their manners may not be "A-OK?"  Below is just a short list of countries and behavior one may want to consider before traveling.

Okay in the U.S. and U.K., this 'A-ok' or 'OK' sign is considered vulgar in Greece, Turkey and many Latin American countries.

Pointing with your finger is rude in so many countries, it is smart to abandon the gesture altogether. Use an open hand, palm up, to indicate direction.

In Japan, it is impolite not to bow lower than the other person when greeting or thanking them.  It is also polite table manners in Japan to slurp your soup.  It indicates to your host that you are enjoying the meal.
"In la bise, the kisses (for there should be at least two) are aimed at alternate cheeks. The online experts cannot seem to agree on which cheek gets the first bise. The thing they all agree about is that the lips doing the kissing remain closed. No slobbering – ça ne se fait pas. Strangely, nobody mentions the importance of holding one's breath while kissing – nobody wants your garlic fumes.
The number (from two to four or even, I am told, five in Corsica) depends less on the degree of affection or acquaintance than on the region. I even found a map of France on the web, showing the number of kisses current in each region. Someone probably got a Master's thesis out of that."

A handshake can also be a faux pas in France if a kiss on the cheek would have been more appropriate. 

Shoes and feet can be a serious source of offense in different parts of the world. Not taking shoes off in Maori or Muslim sacred spaces is very rude.

In Finland and Scandinavian countries, not removing shoes when entering someone's home is seen as very discourteous to one's hosts. 

Clothes are also very important in temples and churches. People should not enter a church in Italy with bare legs or arms and that rule generally applies to other religions. The Vatican even has a dress code and those not adhering to it, will be asked to leave.

In Buddhist temples, it is important to sit with feet tucked under so that they do not point at the Buddha.

Ophra Winfrey inadvertently managed to anger an entire nation when visiting India.   Winfrey dined with a family in Mumbai while the cameras for her show rolled. While on-camera, Oprah remarked, "I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still." Innocent as the remark may have been, it sparked outrage as some felt she was accusing the Indian people of somehow being "backward." Oprah then added insult to injury by continuing to use her left hand to eat even after being told that the Indian people eat only with their right hands and that left hands are used only for serving. When Oprah's hosts politely reminded her of this, she seemingly blew off the instructions and replied, "So I'm going to use both hands, or I’ll be here all night."
Eating with your left hand (aka 'the unclean hand') in India and Middle Eastern countries is considered rude. That part of the body is used for an entirely different function in such places, one that most people don't want to be reminded of when dining. 

A pat on the head is considered an affectionate gesture in much of the Western world, but is extremely rude in Thailand, and in other Asian cultures. In Buddhism the head is the most pure region of the body. 

In the UK and America, the popular "okay" sign is a positive gesture, but if in Greece or Turkey, it is seen as very vulgar.   In France, it can mean "zero" or "nothing."

Giving a clock or a watch as a gift in China or Taiwan may be regarded as a faux-pas, as it traditionally associated with counting the seconds to the recipient's death.

On Bowing in Japan

Japanese social media loved Barack Obama's deep bow  to the Japanese Emperor in 2009, however mixing a handshake with the bow was an etiquette misstep.

Bowing is considered extremely important in Japan, so much so that, although children normally begin learning how to bow from a very young age, companies commonly provide training to their employees in how to execute bows correctly. It is, after all, the feature of Japanese etiquette that is best known outside Japan.

Basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides (boys and men) or clasped in the lap (girls and women) and always, regardless of sex, with the eyes down. 

Bows originate at the waist. Generally, the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion and the respect expressed.

Bows can be generally divided into three main types: informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle or just tilt over one's head to the front, and more formal bows at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows are deeper.

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