How to Keep Your Foot Out of Your Mouth When Traveling Abroad : Cultures: Business deals can go awry and vacations can be spoiled when travelers fail to heed the subtle differences in addressing people of other countries.


On a sales trip to Japan a few years back, Kevin Chambers was introduced to a group of local businessmen "and then I immediately launched into my sales pitch." To his surprise, "They turned completely cold. They looked at the ceiling and they wouldn't talk to me. It was very embarrassing. I tried to fill the gap with babbling, and then I just left. I couldn't imagine what in the world I had done wrong."

His mistake, as he later learned, was to assume that Japanese business meetings progress at the same fast, let's-get-right-to-the-point pace of American negotiations.

"I had failed to comprehend the importance of cultural differences," says Chambers. Japanese meetings typically begin with a lot of "chitchatting. They want to get to know the individual people they are dealing with, to know their character."

Americans today travel to all corners of the world, and even those with only slight cultural sensitivity have become aware that folks in other countries don't always do things the way we do at home. Business travelers fail to heed cultural differences at the peril of lost sales or contracts. Leisure travelers who ignore cultural nuances may wonder why they are sometimes treated with indifference or what they perceive as rudeness.

In Asia, for example, the most ordinary gestures can lead to misunderstandings. In the United States, it is not unusual for an adult to pat the head of a small child who has been introduced by his or her parents. In Malaysia, and other Asian countries, touching anyone's head--but especially a child's--is improper and considered an indignity because the head is regarded as the home of the soul.

But even trying to be culturally aware can have its dangers. Roger E. Axtell, now a retired American businessman who has traveled extensively in the Far East, was asked to prepare a dinner toast in China. Doing the right thing, he arranged to have the toast written out phonetically in the local language, which he does not know. When it came time to speak, he thought he was saying, "Thank you very much for dinner. I've eaten so much I have to loosen my belt." But as he mispronounced the unfamiliar words, what his hosts actually heard was something to the effect that "the girth of my donkey's saddle is loose." It was, says Axtell, an embarrassing moment.

How does a traveler avoid these wholly unintentional cultural mishaps? For one thing, before you go, "do your homework," say Chambers and Axtell, both of whom have written helpful guides to familiarizing yourself with differing manners and practices abroad. Much of the content is based on their personal experiences.

Chambers, who is now manager of the Asia-Pacific office of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, is the author of "The Travelers' Guide to Asian Customs & Manners" (Meadowbrook, $7.95). Axtell, formerly the vice president of worldwide marketing for the Parker Pen Co., has just completed "Gestures, the Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World" (John Wiley & Sons, $9.95). Each is an eye-opener into the pitfalls awaiting an unaware traveler.

Nowadays, Axtell bounces around the world on the speaker's circuit. Much of what he has to say about do's and taboos is on the lighter side, but his audiences are mainly business groups and they are looking for advice that will smooth their way in the international world of commerce. In his talks--as in his new book--he makes quite clear, for example, that the ordinary American handshake is not a universally accepted gesture of greeting.

In Japan, the traditional greeting among friends and business acquaintances is a polite bow, Axtell says, and Americans who observe this custom are much appreciated. "They do shake hands in Japan, but it's because they know we do it," he says. "We think a bow is subservience, but to them it's a sign of respect." In a business situation, the person on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder bows first and deepest.

The exchange of business cards in Japan is also far more ceremonial than we are accustomed to in this country. When accepting a card from a Japanese, you should examine it carefully, says Axtell, and place it in front of you rather than quickly tucking it in your coat pocket. In Japan, the card represents "one's personal identity, one's label, shingle, sign, rank and name tag--all in one." When presenting your card, do so with both hands, facing the lettering toward the recipient, and make a slight bow.

Gift-giving in Japan is quite common, and in this, too, there is ritual. The basic rule, says Axtell, is to make a thoughtful gift rather than a lavish one--"Substance is not as important as style." Be sure that the gift is wrapped, but not in white paper--the color white symbolizes death--and do not use bright-colored paper or fancy bows. Neither is acceptable, although Axtell admits he hasn't yet discovered why.

Much of Axtell's new book, and an earlier one, "Do's and Taboos Around the World", focuses on advice for business travelers. But vacationers can make use of many of the suggestions. In Indonesia, for example, eating while walking on the street is deemed inappropriate, and you might cause offense if you talk to someone without removing your sunglasses. Don't take umbrage yourself, however, if a street vendor touches you to get your attention. It's the custom.

Axtell's books are worldwide in scope. Chambers' guide features Australia, New Zealand and 14 Asian nations, and it is much more detailed--though maybe not quite as much fun to read. Chambers spent a year and a half each in Taiwan and South Korea teaching English and learning Korean and Chinese. Before his Oklahoma state job, he managed the Asia-Pacific office for a cable TV network.

"Most Americans make the mistake of being too familiar, too informal, too loud and too demonstrative," he says. "In most Asian countries, that doesn't go over well. You should be more reserved, more conservative in dress. Especially in business, you have to hold back a little bit."

There are many ways in which a traveler in all innocence can go wrong in dealing with the customs of different cultures.

But by practicing three important virtues--patience, perseverance and politeness--and by doing a bit of homework, you may be able to avoid making the most insulting gestures and end up only amusing your foreign acquaintances, says Axtell. "I'm sure I've done things people are still laughing at."

If all else fails, a smile is welcome anywhere. "As you travel around the world," he says, a smile "may help you slip out of the prickliest of difficult situations."

Axtell recommends the following books and other publications on foreign customs and manners:

--"Culturgrams," a series of 102 four-page newsletters about individual countries and their customs and courtesies. Updated annually, the set is $40; individual countries, $1. Publication Services, David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, 280 HRCB, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602, (801) 378-6528.

--"Japanese Etiquette and Ethics in Business" and "Chinese Etiquette and Ethics in Business," by Boye DeMente (National Textbook Co.).

--The Economist Business Traveller's guides to Southeast Asia, China, Japan and several European nations (Prentice Hall).

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