SEATTLE (Reuters) - My friend and sculling coach Gabi Cipollone won her first Olympic gold medal as a teenager from East Germany in Montreal back in 1976.
Four years later in Moscow, she won her second, barely having recovered from back surgery. What’s more, her first Olympic race made sports history as the first year women were allowed to compete in sculling events. Awesome, isn’t it?
I once asked Gabi what it was like to participate in the Games. Surely she’d tell me about the intensity of competition; the pressure to perform; and the thrill of just being an Olympian, win or lose.
Wrong. Gabi’s quick reply was: “I’d never seen Chinese food before; or people from India, South Africa, or Bermuda.” All of a sudden the world seemed overwhelmingly huge, and it was all contained in a few buildings at Olympic Village.
“Wait until after your race to try your first hamburger,” her coach cautioned. The world of culinary adventure would have to wait. But meeting new people from other nations certainly could not. That, too, proved to be quite an adventure.
The first instinct for many North Americans, whether athletes or businesspeople, when greeting someone is to stick out our hand, look directly at the other person, and smile.
Unfortunately, in some situations, this could mean making three mistakes all at once. Methods and styles of greeting vary greatly around the world, as do dining customs, and it is important to know what is expected in differing circumstances.
After all, it’s the moment of greeting when crucial first impressions are made.
Here are some tips on meeting people from varied cultures, whether you’re at the Olympics, at an international business conference, meeting new classmates, or on vacation:
* When greeting Asians for the first time, it is a good general rule not to initiate the handshake. You may be forcing physical contact that the other person finds uncomfortable. Many Asians, particularly the Japanese, have learned to accept the handshake when dealing with Westerners. Since the bow is the customary greeting in Japan, a slight bow of the head when responding to a proffered handshake greeting is appropriate.
* Most Latins are more accustomed to physical contact. Even people who know each other only slightly may embrace as a greeting.
* As for the Middle East, Muslims and Orthodox Jews avoid body contact with the opposite sex, but people of the same sex commonly hug when greeting each other. When shaking hands, men should be careful not to pull their hands away too quickly.
* People from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal greet friends by kissing on both cheeks.
* The smile is the near-universal gesture of friendliness, and, in America, its meaning is usually clear. In other cultures, the smile may be sending other signals. In some Latin cultures, for example, the smile may be used to say “Excuse me,” or “Please.”
* If a person from another culture does not return your greeting smile, it doesn’t indicate hostility or bad manners. In some Asian cultures, smiling is a gesture reserved for informal occasions, and smiling while being formally introduced would be considered disrespectful.
* In many cultures, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect. This can lead to misunderstandings. For example, there have been many cases of customers in the United States deciding they are being treated disrespectfully by Korean shopkeepers who would not look them in the eye.
Gabi moved from the global village of the Olympics to another, larger melting pot when she came to live in the United States. She felt that her experience being immersed in a variety of cultures served her well.
She offers the following advice: “Keep in mind how important it is to be kind. Don’t be too embarrassed by your mistakes. Forgive others’ mistakes easily. Be willing to set aside your own ideas about what is `right’ and approach new situations with curiosity and an open mind.”
All of us would do well to put these principles into practice, whether inside or outside the Olympic Village.
(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette” and “Class Acts.” She is also the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website themitchellorganization.com. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Editing by Paul Casciato