Personal Space Lost in Translation

In North America, we have a concept of what we consider to be appropriate contact and the proper distance to maintain from others in a professional setting. Personal space may vary slightly depending on familiarity and gender but we generally subscribe to a certain set of norms that are considered acceptable to most. However, in other cultures, personal-space thresholds may be completely different, and awareness of those differences can help international businesspeople and politicians avoid making their clients or associates feel uncomfortable.

Indonesian Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring experienced an awkward moment when shaking the hand of visiting U.S. first lady Michelle Obama last fall. What was so embarrassing about the handshake to inspire one U.S. journalist to jokingly label it “the cutest political sex scandal ever?”

Sembiring is a proud conservative Muslim who avoids physical contact with women who are not family members, even when it has previously meant risking offense by refusing to shake the hand of a female journalist.

Unfortunately, the Internet erupted with negative chatter after video of the encounter showed the minister smiling graciously during the encounter. He defended himself on Twitter by saying “I tried to prevent (being touched) with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me (so) we touched.”

Sembiring later reiterated his original conservative Muslim stance to avoid touching the opposite sex but explained, “there are times when I have been caught off-guard or I have had to meet people who were not aware of my stance.”

Based on his quick acceptance of Mrs. Obama’s hand, he apparently weighed the risk of making her feel uncomfortable and decided beforehand to accept her gesture in the spirit in which it was intended. Though his religious standards mean he must draw the line somewhere, he was kind to put someone else’s comfort above his own. At least he was not caught off guard with a female European diplomat offering a customary kiss – that would have been decidedly more uncomfortable.

What could the first lady have done differently? She could adopt a cautious standard of keeping her hands at her side until someone else offers to shake but doing so might not only make her appear cold to her own country but also could offend those from international contacts who greet more warmly than North Americans. If we all kept our hands at our sides waiting for others to make the first move, nothing would ever happen.

Similarly, a few eyebrows were raised in the United States when former President George W. Bush held hands and even shared a kiss with a Saudi Prince. However, Bush’s flexibility and willingness to forfeit a bit of personal space showed respect and solidarity without any sexual connotations. Unfortunately, in another case, Bush was the one pushing the personal space boundaries; he caused many to feel uncomfortable when he seemingly affectionately squeezed the shoulder of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even world leaders who have entire teams dedicated to protocol do not get it right every time.

So many physical gestures and greetings become instinctive and impromptu to us that we may inadvertently err now and then. However, a conscious determination to be flexible and considerate of others’ cultural expectations will greatly improve the odds that you will put others at ease in the international business world.

(excerpts from “Don’t Touch Me” by Adam Wooten)


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