Bill Gates, South Korea’s President and a Handshake: How to avoid a Cultural Faux Pas

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Bill Gates has been all over the news for a major cultural faux pas. The media hype illustrates the need for people visiting a foreign country to learn about the target culture. Understanding etiquette, manners and protocol is critical in making a good impression. The consequences, as we now see for Bill Gates’ PR, can be damaging.

Why has Gates has  found himself in the middle of this cultural kerfuffle? For disrespecting South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. How? A simple handshake. Yes, a handshake.

The billionaire has been branded as rude by the country’s media because he shook hands with one hand in his pocket.  A major cultural faux pas; especially at such a high level of office where etiquette, protocol and manners are expected.

Mr Gates was in South Korea to give a lecture on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the National Assembly in Seoul.

Korean newspapers attacked the Microsoft founder for being too casual and pictures of the meeting were splashed across the front pages of the country’s major national newspapers today.

One newspaper, The JoongAng, wrote: ‘Cultural difference, or an act of disrespect?’

‘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.

What is the fuss about some of you may be asking? Well, a one-handed hand shake is considered disrespectful in South Korea and other parts of Asia as it’s a very casual way of interacting. A verbal comparison would have been if Gates had greeted the President with “alright?” (for British readers) or “yo s’up?” (for American readers). See what the fuss is about now?

The cultural faux pas has led many to  speculate that it was done deliberately and is a reflection of his political views.

So what should have Bill Gates done?

Well if he had taken 10 minutes out of his schedule to read our Culture Guide to South Korea he would have picked up the following tip:

When doing business in South Korea men greet each other with a slight bow sometimes accompanied with a handshake. When handshaking, the right forearm is often propped up by the left hand. Maintaining eye contact is good etiquette.  In South Korean business culture, women also shake hands. Western women doing business there will need to instigate a handshake with Korean men, as out of politeness, a hand will not be forthcoming.

See – getting cultural knowledge and an understanding of a culture’s protocol or etiquette is not difficult. Learning simple things about a culture makes such a big difference.

5 Tips on Finding out about a Culture and Etiquette

tips on culture and etiquetteFor those who maybe want some guidance on what to do and where to go for this sort of information, here’s five ways of getting culturally savvy before a trip abroad and avoiding any embarrassing cultural faux pas:

1)    Buy a book: There are lots of guides on doing business in foreign countries. Kiss, Bow or Shake hands is a well known book that’s easy to dip into. Check out Amazon for culture guides – some well known ones include Xenophobe’s® Guides and Culture Smart.

2)    Research online: A good place to start is right here on this website. We have culture guides, doing business in guides and countless articles on the topic. The internet is full of information on etiquette tips and cultural profiles. Try Executive Planet or the UKTI website as well.

3)    Download an app: There are a few apps available now in the App store and for Android platforms. Mashable’s 5 iPhone Apps For Avoiding International Business Faux Pas is the best place to look and it also features our app.

4)    Ask: If you are travelling to South Korea, why not ask a Korean before you travel what to expect and what will be expected of you? Who else knows the culture like a local? Never forget colleagues from other countries offer invaluable insight. If you don’t work with someone from that culture, look for local cultural groups, a business chamber or even a restaurant!

5)    Get some training: If you’re serious about business in another country, set aside some budget and take some cultural awareness training. OK, this isn’t free, but how much does it cost to repair a damaged relationship or bad PR? If anything, cultural awareness supports a business’ goals through careful preparation and minimisation of risk.

So next time you go abroad, you have no excuses! Go do a little bit of research and you’ll soon realise the benefits.

How culturally aware do you think you are? Why not take our Cross Cultural Quiz or choose a quiz of your own?

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