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.

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