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President Obama in Myanmar – A kiss is just a kiss…

The International Business Times featured an article today on President Obama’s greeting kiss with Myanmar pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. You can read the full article here:

The article stated that “Obama likely did not mean to offend his Burmese hosts, however, as a well-travelled man of the world, he must have known that a kiss – especially one between a man and a woman who are not married; and one delivered to the most famous woman in Southeast Asia – violates local etiquette.”

As professionals in the translation services (localization services) field, cultural correctness is really at the heart of what we do. In order to appropriately communicate with global clients you must greet them in a culturally correct manner and in their language of preference. This is true if you are meeting a person face-to-face or via your website.

(Photo: Reuters)

We really can’t blame the US President, can we, or other Heads of State when they miss these opportunities to make a good first impression as a guest in another country. How many people from how many countries do they meet each and every day at events and meetings? Certainly Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens must have a country team that preps them on the nuances of greeting Heads of State, notaries and VIPs across cultures and from all parts of the world. How does presidential staff miss these simple yet important nuances of culturally appropriate etiquette? In this case, from our perspective the gesture came from the right place, and was out of respect and appreciation. In fact, we think the world could use more kisses 🙂

For instance, we are from Argentina and Taiwan. In Argentina it is quite common to kiss a person when greeting them and even meeting them for the first time. In Taiwan, it is not practiced at all to kiss a person when greeting or meeting them, except for the younger generations now in some cases.

Here is some recommended reading to help the world’s leaders (and their staff J) and all of us appropriately engage with all the wonderful people we meet from various cultures:

  1. Doing Business Internationally, Second Edition: The Guide To Cross-Cultural Success by Danielle Walker, Thomas Walker and Danielle Medina Walker (Aug 23, 2002)
  2. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries) by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway (Jul 24, 2006)
  3. Doing Business Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Going Global by Thomas G. Travis (Apr 20, 2007)
  4. The World’s Business Cultures: And How to Unlock Them by Barry Tomalin and Mike Nicks (Jul 2010)
  5. Doing Business Internationally: The Cross-Cultural Challenges: Resource Book by Training Management Corporation (Aug 1995)

Taking the lessons learned from this story one step further, as it is now possible to greet people around the world and in real time via the web, here is some good information to help you interact with people from all cultures via your websites.

Professor Singh, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of International Business at Boeing Institute of International Business at Saint Louis University, stated in his book The Culturally Customized Web Site: Customizing Websites for the Global Marketplace:

“The basis for cultural customization of web sites is a theoretically-sound, empirically-validated framework built on five unique cultural values that account for similarities and differences across global cultures. Our research studies indicate that attitude towards web sites, interactivity and usability of web sites, as well as purchase intentions at web sites are enhanced when sites are congruent with the target customers’ cultural predispositions.”

GPI has coauthored with Professor Singh a series of reports on website globalization and e-Business that address some of the challenges with cultural customizations as far as communicating via the web are concerned. They are available for free download on GPI’s website at Website Globalization and E-Business Series.