Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Great article in the Wall Street Journal this week about personal space and different customs in the business context. Here's a link and a brief excerpt...

Touchy Subject: Doing Business Where Hugs Replace Handshakes

When to hug, shake hands or cheek-kiss?

"When the first person kissed me on the cheek I was with another colleague from the U.S. and we looked at each other and we thought 'hey this is great,'" he said. "I remember it vividly."

Mr. White says he was particularly surprised by the gesture because it came from a woman. She gave him a peck on each cheek as she shook his hand. That encounter, contrasting with the harsh realities of the financial crisis his colleagues were facing, was Mr. White's first taste of the physical warmth typical to Brazilian business interactions.

For a traveler most familiar with the arms-length, lawsuit-wary corporate environment in the U.S., physical contact in the workplace will seem unfamiliar at best. But Brazilians are comfortable with contact; the issue isn't one of personal space or propriety for them. Instead, touching has to do with trust.

This was a timely article, as I was thinking about my going away party, and wondered to myself what's the best way to express my thanks to my friends and co-workers? A handshake? Seems too formal and sterile. A hug? My preferred option, but after doing my GTMS training, that could be grounds for sexual harrassment. It's too bad that simple expressions of gratitude can be so difficult in today...

I was reminded of my time in Belgium, where I remember my first experience of having to say goodbye to a Belgian co-worker who was leaving the company. Everybody lined up and they were giving her this two-cheek kiss, as is typical in Europe. When it was my turn, like a good awkward American, I stuck out my hand to shake her hand and said "good luck!"... to which she instructed, "No, first, the left cheek, then the right cheek". Lesson learned.

I hope there's a time in the US where greetings and expressions of thanks are no longer associated with legal risk.

Swag and fairness

You all probably know what swag is, if not, it's the small little trinkets that you get at recruiting fairs, like little pens, slinkies, plastic toys, (or in my company's case, plastic hearts) all printed with a company's logo on it. Stuff that's totally cool when you see it on the recruiting fair table, but totally useless once you get back to your dorm (or office). Stuff that's likely made overseas for pennies, and sold back here to college students and trinket collectors, who probably throw the stuff out anyways.

There's this law firm that we work with for our patents, and in the past, once our patents applications have been submitted, they send us a $5 amazon gift certificate for our work. Only $5! I've always had mixed feelings about this, because we put in a lot of work for these applications, I'm sure the company pays a lot of money for these applications, but for all of our work, we get a $5 gift certificate. Since this reward is so small for the amount of effort, I feel like it's an insult and would rather that they'd keep the money. (or maybe discount the company's price by $5). But on the other hand, I also realize it's a free $5.

Recently, I read an article in the Economist about some neuroscience researchers who looked at very similar behaviour in monkeys. (See link to the original Nature article) These monkeys prefer eating grapes over cucumbers. In this study, they had monkeys performing a certain task. Half of the group was given grapes as a reward for completing the task, the other half were given cucumbers. When the cucumber group saw that grapes were being given to their colleagues, they refused to perform the task and refused to accept the award. Sound familiar? It's almost like the monkeys had a similar feeling that I did when I received the $5 gift certificate, the reward is simply not up to par with the work, and they'd rather receive nothing than an insulting reward. (Link to the article in the Economist)

How does this two seemingly separate topics (swag and fairness) relate to each other? A few days ago, I received two packages (year-end gifts?) from this particular law firm... one was a nice hardback book, and another was a hand-crank radio/light/survival kit. The radio was definitely some very nice swag, definitely worth more than the $5 gift certificates and it made me think: are they trying to earn favor with us? Or is it simply a gift?