How to Deal with Body Contact & Personal Space in Foreign Cultures

Do you bow, shake hands, or hug when you greet someone? Do you kiss on both cheeks?

How much space do you need to feel comfortable on the metro?

What is appropriate touching in your culture?

We’ve been talking about visual frameworks and the way different cultures perceive the world. Aside from vision, all four of our other senses have cultural sensitivities as well.

And touching is one of them.

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette

When you live and work in a foreign culture, you might find your colleagues are comfortable with a different level of body contact and personal space.

One example: I was relocated to Madrid, Spain when I was a young manager. In Spain, you often find yourself negotiating over long lunches that wind down toward late afternoon.

I’d always know when the “real deal” was going down, because if my arm was resting on the table, my negotiating partner would place his hand on my arm. That gesture typically meant we were getting down to business.

To one who is accustomed to such a level of body contact, this action would be perceived as ordinary.

But for those from a culture with a different perception of touch, the body contact would probably be exceedingly uncomfortable and might even be viewed as inappropriate. Especially in a business meeting.

To Hug or Not to Hug

At around the same time I was being made uncomfortable in my meeting, my wife was taking a Spanish course alongside the wife of a Japanese diplomat.

Japanese culture views body contact of any kind with strangers or colleagues as intimate – even forbidden.

So, imagine her discomfort with the Spanish greeting of a kiss on both cheeks.

Not only do the Spanish kiss; they greet with effusive familiarity. And this woman had not only grown with the primary socialization of her culture, but was also raised in an aristocratic family, who reinforced those strict values and norms.

She explained to my wife how difficult it was to adapt. And it’s easy to understand why.

Do You Adapt?

Imagine you traveled to Zuma (a made-up country), where people – men and women – greeted you by rubbing their chest on you.

Remember, breasts are not viewed as a sexual part of the body in many cultures.

Knowing that, would you be comfortable with this greeting? And the real question: would you adapt to it?

The alternative is to stubbornly abide by your own cultural norms, awkwardly refusing to greet in this manner the rest of your days in this foreign country. But in doing so, you are saying to the locals: “I am the Monkey! I refuse to embrace your ways.”

And in making this choice, your new culture will not fully embrace you in return.

10 Cultural Universals: How Does Geography Impact Culture?

Last week, we glanced at the 10 Cultural Universals. For the next several weeks, we’ll take a closer look at each of them, in turn. Let’s start with geography.

Let me paint a picture:

It’s the 16th century. The astounding Andean Mountains serve as the backdrop to the epic uprising of the Inca culture – a culture that sprung up in the highlands of Peru and thrived for three centuries.

Surprisingly, for being such an important empire – and perhaps the largest in history – technology isn’t so advanced as to include wheeled vehicles, partially due to the terrain and lack of draft animals to pull plows and wagons.

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And yet, still, the Incas create enormous architectural structures and road networks that stand to this day. Their diet is primarily vegetarian, and they produce agricultural innovations – like warehouses to conserve grain – that aid their culture’s survival in this difficult environment. The government, too, does their job to drive the empire to greatness, enforcing labor management and organization strategies that are crucial to their success.

Of course, clothing in the highland is warmer and often made out of wool. The textiles are woven or knitted and are never tailored, held together, instead, by metal pins. Clothing styles indicate the status of the individual, with commoners wearing garments of coarser textiles.

The bodies of the Inca people, as well, have physically adapted to the high altitude, with an increase in red blood cell count and lung capacity.

As you can tell, geography plays a major hand in directing the Inca’s cultural formation and development. All of this is studied in cultural geography, one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural Geography

Defined as “The study of the relationship between culture and place,” in Dartmouth’s words, cultural geography:

“Examines the cultural values, practices, discursive and material expressions and artefacts of people, the cultural diversity and plurality of society, and how cultures are distributed over space, how places and identities are produced, how people make sense of places and build senses of place, and how people produce and communicate knowledge and meaning.”

Rooted in Friedrich Ratzel’s anthropogeography, the study of the relationship of a culture with its natural environment began in the early 20th century, with the intent to understand social organizations and cultural practices in relation to place and environment.

This includes such topics as the isolation or interconnectedness of a culture, clothing, traditions, government, economy, religion, etc., all with respect to its geography.

Cultural geography looks at how groups adapt to their environment, but also how they shape the landscape, through architecture, agriculture, and engineering.

New Cultural Geography

In the late 1980s, ‘new cultural geography’ challenged the above approach by expanding these areas of research. New cultural geography looks more broadly at the many ways in which culture impacts places and everyday life.

“Othering,” imperialism, colonialism, religion, and nationalism are studied to determine how these practices impact the locale, including various groups’ sense of rejection or acceptance in society.

While the study of culture and geography is as ever-changing as a landscape, one thing’s certain: culture and geography are indelibly interconnected.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.

Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.

Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

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Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting

Do chopsticks seem illogical to you? Is squatting to use a toilet too unfamiliar to fathom? Have you ever felt your worldview being threatened while traveling or living abroad?

You’re not alone. These thoughts arise when you’re living in a foreign culture. As you start to see how culture shapes our world, accepting behaviors that seem oddly shaped is the first step to integration.

Just as you wish to be accepted by your foreign colleagues, you must accept them. And that means accepting their culture. This is the foundation of successfully leading in a foreign culture.

More than simply accepting, you must also adapt. This is the application of your acceptance, where you begin to integrate foreign behaviors into your daily routine and foreign ideas and attitudes into your thought processes.

How Do You Adapt?

Say, you’re from the UK. You normally take dinner anywhere from 6:30 to 8:30 PM, right after you get home from work. You’re used to this schedule.

Your work relocates you to Spain. Your colleagues invite you out to dinner regularly, but they don’t eat until 9 to 10:30 pm. By then, you’re ready to chew your arm off.

Would you get hangry and call off dinner? Or would you adapt the Spanish eating schedule?

Well, first, you might try and understand why the Spanish eat so late.

According to donquijote.org, lunch is the most important meal of the day in Spain, and it’s also when many take their 2 to 4 pm siesta. This pushes the end of the workday to a later hour, because when they return from lunch, they stay until 8 pm. Then, they usually have a merienda, which is a light snack until dinner is served.

In order to integrate into Spanish culture, eating late is certainly something you can accept and adapt as your own. This will help you become part of your colleagues’ culture, and they’ll start to accept you as one of their own too.

Do My Values Change When I Adapt?

You might be afraid that you’ll lose yourself if you adapt too much of another’s culture. But remember the following:

Adapting requires a change in behavior, not a change in values.

That’s not to say you won’t adopt foreign cultural values at some point. You may consider new ideas, behaviors, or philosophies valid and even truer to yourself than those of your own culture. That’s when you’ll adopt.

But such significant transformations are not fast, easy, nor are they painless. They will take much longer than simply changing your eating schedule. We’ll cover this topic in a later post.