Contact vs. No Contact Cultures: A Guide to Touching

If you’re a man, how would you greet another man? Probably just a shake of the hand, right?

How would you greet a woman? If you’re from the West, probably the same.

You’d offer your hand without a second thought. But, considering the different body contact norms across cultures, you shouldn’t assume sameness when it comes to greetings.

Sometimes, cross-cultural matters of gender are quite sensitive and, depending on the culture, even same-gender greetings may require some specific behaviors.

If you don’t want to do something taboo in your new culture, as a monkey, watch and learn. Or, better yet, prepare yourself beforehand by reading up on gender norms in this “guide to touching.”

Touching Across Genders

In certain cultures, particularly in traditional ones, touching when greeting is only acceptable when of the same gender.

Generally, same-gender contact (male-to-male and female-to female) is acceptable in many cultures. But what about male-to-female contact?

Physical contact between men and women in African countries and in Muslim majority countries is often seen as taboo.

Moreover, in traditional societies, PDA is unacceptable, and you’ll rarely see a man and a woman holding hands in public or greeting each other with physical contact.

In some regions, the latter is acceptable if the man and woman are family.

Left Hand/Right Hand

You should also consider which hand you greet someone with.

If you are left handed, and normally reach out to shake with your dominant hand, hold up a minute.

When in Africa or Muslim majority countries, many will consider this left-handed shake disrespectful, because the left hand is considered the “dirty” hand.

Because clean water for hand-washing isn’t always readily available in some regions, tasks in these cultures are separated between the left and right, with the left hand being responsible for dirty tasks…even cleaning oneself after using the toilet.

Not only that, but in Islam, a preference is always given to the right hand.

DohaNews states why:

“This follows in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, who favored his right hand for such actions [eating meals and greeting people].”

When Muslims perform wadu – purifying themselves ritually before prayer – they follow a sequence while washing, always prioritizing the right side.

Imam Talib Shareef told PBS:

“That cleanliness is a process. It starts with your intentions. In basic terms it’s, ‘I intend to make the ablution in preparation to stand in obedience before my Lord.’”

Being as the right hand is given such preference, touching or greeting someone with the left hand would be considered very rude, regardless of whether or not the right hand is busy at the time.

Knowledge of these differences in cross-gender contact and right hand/left hand norms can make the difference between success across cultures or a terrible first impression.

Culture & “The Bubble”: Closing the Gap of Personal Space

A tennis ball.

A volleyball.

A beach ball.

An ocean.

Whatever size our bubble is, we each walk around inside our own yardstick of personal space.

Last week, we talked about how culture and the climate, along with the level of intimacy in relationships, can all affect the degree of our bubble.

This week, we’ll talk about how to close that gap – or at least become more comfortable with it – when living in a foreign culture.

The American Bubble

Americans value personal space. 

International student guides to the US even highlight this preference:

“If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to be aware of this, so if the person to whom you are speaking backs away a little, don’t try to close the gap.”

More advice given to international students to the US includes:

  • Shake hands upon meeting
  • Avoid all other physical contact while speaking with casual acquaintances (no arm over the shoulder, arm touching, hand holding, etc.)

Americans clearly have a preference for physical distance and no body contact…at least when it comes to strangers and casual acquaintances.

So, how do American managers deal with more touchy-feely cultures abroad?

Insert Desk Here

Latin America is a physically close culture, as was illustrated in the study discussed in last week’s post.

Imagine an American manager entering into this tennis ball-sized bubble culture.

When speaking with an employee, said employee stands too close for comfort, forcing the manager to step backwards to regain his bubble. But in doing so, the employee steps closer again, because he is uncomfortable with the wide gap.

While savvy American managers who work in Latin America want to adapt cross-culturally, those who can’t bear the physical closeness often use a small trick to avoid it with their colleagues and employees.

Instead of taking a step back, they close the gap with an object – like a table or desk – thereby creating the gap for them. This way, the employee is at a comfortable distance, while not feeling uncomfortable, himself, with the object-made gap.

Sometimes, closing the gap is not easy (see: the Japanese woman who forced herself to adapt to the Spanish greeting of kisses); other times, it’s as easy as a desk.

Culture & “The Bubble”: How Norms Affect Personal Space

How big is your personal bubble?

Does the distance differ between a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about kissing across cultures and the intimacy of cultural greetings. This all relates to cultural norms and, particularly, personal distance.

Safe Space

People of every culture like to keep a safe space from others, whether they’re talking, walking, or taking public transport. This invisible boundary, while sometimes particular to an individual, also has roots in the cultural baobab.

When someone trespasses this space, particularly if they’re a stranger or specifically unwanted within the bubble, the person whose space has been invaded will instinctively move away in order to regain their boundary of comfort.

Why do we have this sense of personal space? Do we fear bad breath or B.O.?

Well, that may be an issue…but, more importantly, the close proximity lends itself to a sense of intimacy that may be incongruent to the relationship between two people.

When our space is invaded, a ping of fear is triggered in the amygdala of the brain. Though mostly subconscious, this emotional reaction is established during primary socialization around the age of 3 or 4, which is when personal space starts to develop and is later fully formed in adolescence.

While matters of personal space may be somewhat suppressed when in a particular setting (on an elevator or a packed metro, for instance), the feeling of discomfort is still there. And, as mentioned, it often differs according to an individual’s relationship with the other person.

You’re Getting Warmer…

So, what makes a culture “colder” or “warmer” than another in relation to this bubble?

Funnily enough, often the temperature. 

A study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology examined cultures and personal space, gathering information from around 9,000 people in 42 countries. Researchers were particularly interested in whether or not climate impacted a culture’s norms regarding personal space.

An earlier study had concluded that there were “contact” cultures ( Latin American, Arabian, and southern European) and “non-contact” cultures (North American, northern European, and areas of Asia).

Individuals were asked at what distance they were comfortable standing next to a close friend, an acquaintance, and a stranger. The study found that it was often the case that the warmer the climate, the thinner the bubble.

Argentina had the narrowest personal gap, being at as comfortable a distance with a stranger as a Canadian was with a close friend. On the other hand, Romanians had the widest bubble when it came to strangers (>1.3 meters) but one of the smallest for close friends (40 cm).

While this doesn’t illustrate a clear cut theory on warm vs. cold climates producing warm vs. cold cultures, in general, the higher a country’s temperature the narrower “the bubble” between strangers.

Next week, we’ll talk about ways of “closing the gap” of personal space across cultures.

To Kiss Or Not to Kiss?

A peck on the cheek, locking lips, snogging, necking, playing tonsil hockey.

90 percent of the global population practices some form of kissing or another.

And, yet, cultural values and norms dictate where and when and why and who we kiss.

Last week, we talked about cultural norms and appropriate touching. Today, we’ll discuss one of the most plainly visible cultural behaviors in this realm: kissing.

Greetings

As we mentioned last week, Spanish women often greet with a kiss on both cheeks. Spanish men, however, do not normally greet other men this way. Cross-gender kissing is a greeting strictly reserved for women.

Travel to Eastern Europe, and you’d find there are no restrictions with the cheek kiss; men and women, alike, greet each other as such. A kiss on both cheeks is commensurate with a handshake.

Another cultural greeting comes in the form of the “Eskimo kiss.” This is a kiss that looks like rubbing noses.

The “kiss” is actually a Canadian Inuit tradition called a kunik. However, a kunik is probably not what you think.

Communications Director of the Avataq Cultural Institute in Montreal, Taqralik Partridge, told Esquire:

“Inuit do not touch noses end to end or rub them back and forth against each other. We place our nose over the place we intend to kunik, press our nostrils against the skin, and breathe in, causing the loved one’s skin or hair or any other part to be suctioned against our nose and upper lip.”

The intention with a kunik is to breathe in the smell of your loved one. These norms illustrate the Inuit culture’s values.

Where Kissing is a Crime

Some cultures prohibit kissing in specific circumstances.

For instance, in many parts of the world, PDA is highly taboo. And in some places, kissing in public is not only “frowned upon,” it’s illegal.

You might expect that in cultures with stricter cultural values and norms, like the Middle East or North Africa. But, guess what? Kissing is also illegal (on the books, at least) in some parts of the U.S.

In Hartford, Connecticut, it was made illegal for husbands to kiss their wives on Sundays. And in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a law was put in the books that prohibited strangers from kissing.

And what about unwanted kisses?

Snopes ran an article about English gentleman, Thomas Saverland, who apparently needed to learn that “no means no” the hard way.

In 1837, Saverland forcibly kissed Miss Caroline Newton at a party. Newton wasn’t having it, so she bit off a chunk of his nose.

According to the Bell’s New Weekly Messenger published on April 30, 1837, when Saverland took her to court, the judge was not sympathetic to his case, ruling:

“When a man kisses a woman against her will, she is fully entitled to bite off his nose, if she so pleases.”

These strangely specific instances are obviously regional and are likely not enacted nowadays. But the fact that they ever existed just goes to show how mores can become laws in certain cultures. And it also illustrates how cultural mores can evolve over time.

Sometimes, it takes years and even decades for laws to catch up to changing cultural values. And when values change, norms – like kissing habits – often follow.

Next week, we’ll delve deeper into sexual mores to see how various cultures view the act of locking lips.

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.

Visual Framework: How Culture Fashions Our Worldview

Do you see the world around you the way a Spanish person sees it? A Russian? A Korean?

Do you see it the way a Koyukon sees it?

Last week, we talked about optical illusions and how different cultures view three-dimensional objects on paper.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion about how our visual world fits into the framework presented by our culture.

Reality + Interpretation = Visual Framework

Our visual framework is defined by two equal parts:

  • Reality
  • Our Interpretation of Reality

And our interpretation of reality is largely defined by our culture…which means that visual frameworks vary as greatly as cultures do.

As we saw with the 10 Cultural Universals, everything from transportation to our homes, the geographical landscape of our region to our art, illustrates just how starkly our cultures differ.

These differences also show how each culture interprets the world around them, and how their worldview is fashioned by their experiences, values, and norms.

Our visual framework and what we place importance on, culturally, is often exhibited through language

One example comes in the simplest form: snow.

Western Snowflakes

How do Westerners view snow?

Many view it in one form: just, you know, that white powdery stuff…snow.

Westerners who are avid skiers might describe different variations of snow.

Hard.

Fresh.

Packed.

Powder.

But beyond a handful of adjectives, Westerners view snow pretty narrowly.

The Koyukon, on the other hand…

Koyukon Snowflakes

This indigenous group from northern Alaska lives along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers.

Being that they literally live in snow for a good part of the year, their visual framework of the crystals is much more complex. We’re talking sixteen variations-complex.

Here are the Koyukon language‘s sixteen terms for snow, for which each has a distinct separate word (similarly to the Russians regarding dark and light blue):

  • snow
  • deep snow
  • blowing snow
  • falling snow
  • hard drifted snow
  • heavy drifting snow
  • earliest crusted snow in spring
  • snow on the ground
  • granular snow beneath the surface
  • snow thawed previously and then frozen
  • snow caught on tree branches
  • thinly crusted snow
  • snow cornice on a mountain
  • snow drifted over a steep bank, making it steeper
  • fluffy or powder snow
  • slushy snow on the ground

Just Imagine…

Now, just imagine it: you’re Koyukon. You look around your winter wonderland, and you see all these distinct variations of frozen water.

Put yourself in their moccasins and view the snowcapped world with this visual framework.

Wouldn’t the differentiation make snow in all its unique forms so much more important to you than the simple view taken by Westerners?

Seeing the world in another’s visual framework helps in understanding and empathizing with another’s culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about how ignoring this framework can result in some pretty major cross-cultural misinterpretations.

Cultural Conditioning: How Does Our Culture Influence the Way We See the World?

figure1

Look at this figure. Study it. Memorize it.

Now, take out a blank sheet of paper, turn your screen away, and draw the figure from memory.

Return to your screen.

Did you draw it accurately?

For more than a decade, I’ve given my classes this test, and I’ve yet to have a single student be replicate this picture from memory.

Why does this simple figure baffle us so?

Three-dimensional Conditioning

In Western culture, we are taught to recognize three-dimensional projections on paper as real object replicas.

In all actuality, this drawing when taken in two-dimensional pieces is only three circles, six horizontal lines, three diagonals and one vertical line.

But when we see this figure through our Western lens, our brains start doing mental gymnastics, trying to interpret a two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional one.

This happens with other like-figures. M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase based on Penrose Stairs, for instance.

blog59

blog59-2

Or the triangle of Penrose.

blog59-1

Because we have been trained and socialized to see three-dimensionality on paper, we have a much harder time replicating these impossible figures.

Absence of Three-dimensional Conditioning

Zambian children with no academic education were presented with the same exercise by J. B. Deregowski, author of Illusions, Patterns, and Pictures.

How did they do?

You probably guessed that they were much more successful at reproducing the figure above.

However, if you asked the same students to give you directions using a two-dimensional map, more than likely, they’d be unable to transpose the map against reality’s three-dimensional surroundings.

Why?

Because they weren’t taught to see three-dimensional figures on paper. Three-dimensionality is not important to their culture, thus, to them, there is no optical illusion.

It’s that simple.

90°

Right angles are another example of differing cultural perceptions.

People who live in traditional societies with arched doorways, arched ceilings, round huts are known to have a “circular culture.”

They are not able to perceive 90° angles, because right angles don’t appear in nature. They don’t exist there, so they don’t exist in the architecture or elsewhere in these cultures.

Conditioning

The color research we’ve talked about over the past couple weeks demonstrates that our perception of the world through our senses is influenced by cultural conditioning.

For instance, we mentioned that Russian culture differentiates between dark blue and light blue with language, defining them as totally different colors.

The British, on the other hand, don’t define them as two colors, but as two shades of one color.

Brit and Russian optics have the same functionality.

But, for some cultural reason, the distinction between light and dark blue isn’t of great importance to the Brits, while it is to Russians, according to their language.

Why is that?

Next week, we’ll talk more about how our visual framework influences our interpretation of reality.

Different ≠ Inferior: Dropping the Cross-Cultural Superiority Complex

Your culture calls light blue and dark blue simply “blue.”

Another culture has two different words for it.

Your culture crumples its toilet paper.

Another folds it.

Another uses no toilet paper at all.

Your culture bows.

Another shakes hands.

Another kisses on both cheeks.

Cultures are different. But none are inferior. And none are unnatural either.

Here’s why.

Stranger Danger

One of the most dangerous ideas in the history of man has been that different equates inferior.

Why is this thought dangerous?

Well, for one, if you view your foreign counterpart as inferior, it goes without saying that you consider yourself superior to him/her.

And when you consider yourself superior, you may try to impose your ideology on the other. That’s happened throughout history, time and again.

When you consider another inferior, you may also justify treating them as such. Treating them like animals.

You may enslave them.

You may abuse them.

You may slaughter them.

It’s a sad reality, but this idea of inferiority is the catalyst to such horrors in our world.

Many of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed because of the prejudice that one’s own culture is superior to another’s.

But it isn’t.

Be Fascinated * Give Life Meaning

Cultural norms are natural to their own culture. And they are often a beautiful representation of that culture.

Seeing cultural differences in this light – as natural and beautiful to the culture – will make you more adaptable and successful in a multicultural environment. Adopting this view will help you manage differences (some of which may appear to you as cumbersome or even incomprehensible when compared with your own norms and values).

If you are living and working in a foreign culture, your success depends upon identifying cultural differences and accepting them as they are.

Do not view them in the positive or negative. Such shades are counterproductive.

Instead, take the view of John Hooker who said in his book, Working Across Cultures:

“I have neither the wisdom nor the desire to pass judgment. For me every culture is a source of fascination, because it must encompass all of life and give it meaning.”

And, as with most life-encompassing meanings, none are “less than”. They are the heart of a people, a culture, and should be respected as such.

Next week, we’ll talk about how cultural conditioning creates these differences.

Maybe She’s Born with It: Genetic Versus Acquired Behaviors

Last week, we talked about the evolution of color perception.

Why were traditional societies without the color “blue” in their vocabulary? Was it due to their culture? Or their genetics?

That’s exactly what researchers Paul Kay and Brent Berlin set out to investigate.

Inferiority

As discussed in our last post, the scientific community previously assumed that the so-called genetic inferiority of “primitive” societies resulted in a lack of color perception – and thus a lack of color language.

It was only in 1969 that Kay and Berlin took a deeper look.

In researching the languages of twenty ethnic groups, they collected the groups’ color descriptions, using twenty different color chips. In this way, they systematically compared these groups’ color vocabulary.

Their Findings

Primary colors were identified across nearly every culture, which suggests that color language is unrelated to retina development or genetics.

Evolutionary research also confirms that the eyes of Hebrews and ancient Greeks possessed the same color vision as they do today.

What Does This Mean?

This means that color language is a cultural norm; there is no difference in our genetics, our vision or our perceived color spectrum.

The difference is only in the language. And while some cultures differentiate distinct separations between certain colors, others don’t.

One example: Blue

blog57

Take a look at this color spectrum.

In the Russian language, what English speakers call “light blue” qualifies as a different color from “dark blue.”

“Goluboy” and “siniy” in Russian, respectively.

Both light and dark blue are the same color in English, just two different shades of that color.

In fact, Russians may be more on point than the Brits on this differentiation. The wavelengths of light and dark blue differ as much as light blue and green.

So, equating dark and light blue makes as much physiological sense as calling light blue green and vice versa.

Now, consider early Russian scientists or linguists studying the English language.

The absence of vocabulary between what they saw as two distinct colors – goluboy and siniy -would certainly have made the English language – and, therefore, the British – seem primitive and uncivilized.

The Russians may have viewed their lacking color vocabulary as a lack of color perception and, therefore, genetic inferiority.

Civilized/Uncivilized

So, does color vocabulary (and the assumed “color perception” that accompanies it) make one culture more civilized than the other?

Of course not.

Whether your language lumps light and dark blue together or it differentiates between the two – or whether you have the color “blue” in your language at all – no color vocabulary is inferior to the other.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

Coloring the World: The Evolution of Color Perception

What colors do you see here?

blog56

What about here?

blog56-1

Here?

blog56-2

Here?

blog56-3

It might surprise you to know that in Homer’s famed works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, he described the sea as wine-dark.

He described sheep’s wool as violet.

And the color of honey? Green.

All of this seems to imply that either the world’s color palette has changed…or, more likely, the human perception of color has.

Old Testament Eyesight

We assume that our world has and will always appear visually the same to everyone. In fact, that is not the case at all.

Guy Deutscher explains in his book, Looking Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages. 

Deutscher highlights philologist Lazarus Geiger’s 1867 discovery of strange color descriptions in old text.

Along with Homer’s descriptions, listed above, the Old Testament also describes faces that turn green with panic, red horses, and dove feathers in green gold.

These color descriptors are unusual today, and that may not be due to artistic license; rather, the evolution of eyesight may be at play here.

Evolution of Eyesight

Color perception and evolution walk hand-in-hand, according to one of the first research theories into what links the two.

As color perception became more important in developed civilizations (like the ancient Greeks), the human eye’s color sensitivity enhanced across generations.

Take blue, for example.

blog56-4

The color blue was absent in early text (see the wine-colored sea above). Yet, the color red was everywhere, as distinguishing red was paramount to survival.

blog56-5

Why?

Red=blood = danger.

Red appears in most old languages and has long appeared in garment dyes. Blue, on the other hand, has always been rare in nature and difficult to manufacture, thus our unnecessary sensitivity to it and its description.

Absence of Color

“The more delicate cones of the retina, which impart the higher color-sense, have probably developed gradually only during the last millennia.”

– biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1878

Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, agreed with Haeckel. He said in 1877 that our “perception and appreciation of color” was a recent acquisition.

When researching language of color in traditional cultures – like that of the Klamath Indians in Oregon and the Nubians in Africa – scientists found similar color descriptors used as in old scriptural languages.

At the time, many in the scientific community assumed this similarity in language between old scriptural color descriptions and those used by what they called “primitive societies” was due to the assumed physical and intellectual inferiority of these groups (a popular belief at the time).

But they would soon discover they were very wrong to assume. Tune in next week to find out why.