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The Importance of Cultural Awareness in Global Business: Understanding Handshake Etiquette in South

Whose Rules?

When Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, was in South Korea and met the then President Park Geun-hye for the first time, critics were “up in arms” about his behavior. He was there to build relationships, talk about nuclear energy, and promote his new start-up, TerraPower. But why was there a media frenzy? 
Gates was criticized for being too casual in his initial contact with the President. When shaking her hand, he kept his left hand in his pocket. Some of the press read: “The handshake that has bruised a nation”; “Plain rude”; “Ignorance or just plain disrespect?”; “Cultural difference or bad manners?”; “A disrespectful handshake or a casual friendly handshake?” There was notable disdain for how Gates went about establishing relationships in the East (Cho, 2013). 
In Korean culture, using one hand to shake someone else’s is considered too casual, something you would do with a good friend or a younger person. The other hand in the pocket symbolizes superiority and can be potentially rude when used in the wrong context or situation. South Korea is a hierarchical culture where rank and position of a person must be respected and acknowledged. In fact, Koreans have a complex system of how they address people and construct identity, called, “honorifics,” which uses different words to emphasize the importance of people who are older and in higher positions (Yoon, 2015). 
Whose Rules? 
Some argued that you can’t expect a Western person to follow an Eastern culture’s rules nor be judged by its cultural standards. Others reasoned that he is a “casual man … not bound by customs” or that he is “one of the richest men in the world and can do whatever he wants.” But there is an appropriate protocol for such occasions when meeting with heads of state regardless of how rich or down-to-earth you are. Knowing the code of behavior is essential in creating goodwill and developing lasting relationships especially if you are trying to cultivate them. You need to consider a person’s status, gender, and even religion, all of which are important (Irvine, 2013). 
Whether we shake hands, bow, or kiss someone on the cheek, it is important to be aware of the symbolism conveyed in the actual gesture. It’s not only good etiquette, but smart business. Being aware of a counterpart’s specific cultural norms demonstrates respect and that you have spent time learning their customs in order to develop a lasting relationship. In Japan, the subordinate is expected to bow lower than the boss. In France, you kiss a friend on each cheek, but in the Netherlands, three times. In China, you are expected to give and receive business cards with both hands while commenting on the other person’s impressive credentials. It’s not the actual gesture that contains meaning, but what is in that person’s mind. People create the meaning that is attached to gestures. 
Can a cultural faux pas break a relationship or potential business deal? It depends. Can you be forgiven for a social or cultural faux pas? Of course. However, if you are to be successful as a global leader you must develop an awareness of cultural practices that carry important meaning to the people with whom you interact. You may not always get it right, but it’s important to be alert and ready to adapt to the customs and practices of the people and the place you are visiting. Anything that we can do to promote respect toward someone’s culture or traditions is vital. So, is greeting someone correctly a social necessity? Yes, absolutely! 
Our Changing World 
Our world has shrunk dramatically. With our ability to communicate 24/7 with anyone, anywhere via the Internet and smartphones; with one keystroke that brings us immediate, streaming news from all over the world; with easy access to cheaper, faster, more comfortable air travel, we have traversed the four corners of the world. Despite technology, trade, or travel, our world is more complex, ambiguous, and fast-paced than ever—and it is harder to keep up no matter how fast one’s Internet connection is. Now we see this most strikingly due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, which has demonstrated just how interconnected our economies are while accentuating how different national responses to the crisis have been. 
It is no longer possible to minimize cultural differences it has been too easy to overemphasize commonalities and underestimate differences, and we have done just that. We are experiencing a new way of living and have reached a point of no return with the cultural imperative—it is unavoidable, it demands our attention, it is an obligation, and it is a necessity if we are to survive. Communicating and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and parts of the globe are the new normal. 
So, what does this have to do with business? Everything! On an organizational, team, and individual level, it means that we are now required to interact with people who are quite different from us. We must learn to speak, listen, and write with a greater sensitivity, flexibility, and openness to doing things on other people’s terms, not necessarily our own. 
Why Is Culture Important in Business? 
Globalization and Business 
What is globalization? In business, it is when technology, communications, trade, tariffs, migration, and labor markets open across borders so that free trade and capital flow unhindered by national boundaries. A more technical definition would describe globalization as: the increasing interdependence among national governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and individual citizens. The drivers facilitating globalization are: (a) the free movement of goods, services, knowledge, and communication across national boundaries; (b) the development of new technologies think high-speed Internet and air travel; (c) the lowering of tariffs and other obstacles to such movement; and (d) human migration, especially from developing to developed countries (Gannon, 2008). 
Globalization and Society 
Globalization impacts us in social and political ways as well. Because of how our world has changed, we can cross borders with our communication, our products, our services, and our creativity through technology, travel, lower tariffs, and human migration. Therefore, if we are living in a side-by-side global marketplace, then we need global leaders who can identify and interact with people who have different norms, perspectives, and ideologies. Leading people is hard enough when dealing with personality styles, work preferences, and life experiences. But by adding an extra layer of complexity that comes with leading people across borders, you will be challenged by language differences and cultural values that guarantee the potential for misunderstanding and even failure. In a nutshell, we could define a global leader as someone who deals with complexity, uncertainty, and risk.

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