Students learning about etiquette, customs
to help them compete in global marketplace


Students in a class at Texas A&M's College of Architecture are learning about global etiquette practices to help them compete in environments where a business deal might hinge on a knowledge of manners in the U.S. or abroad.

One session in the Cultural and Ethical Global Practices class saw students head to the Rudder Tower's University Club to learn about the do's and don'ts of fine dining during an Oct. 20 dinner.

At the club's dinner tables, students were greeted by University Club director Reeta K. Grimes and an array of properly placed silverware, dishes and glassware.

Grimes then led students from the beginning to the end of the meal—how to eat soup, which fork to use with which course, where to place their napkins during a temporary trip from the dinner table, and all the rest.

It's part of the knowledge students will need in their careers, said class professor Rodney Hill.

"After students graduate, they're going to be working globally," he said. "In the next 40 years, there will be 3 billion people added to the earth, and only 120 million of them are going to be in the U.S. There will be global opportunities for all these kids. That's why this course was established."

Chief operating officers of design firms that do business globally have been guest lecturers in the class, said Hill.

"Several of them said on the third round of interviewing possible personnel, they'll invite the prospect to lunch or dinner to see if they know about etiquette or if they'll embarrass the firm abroad," he said.

They've also been telling students how business gets done in different parts of the world.

When representatives from a firm meet potential clients in Central and South America, for instance, one never talks business right away.

"You don't bring up contracts, you don't dare even mention it," Hill said. "They want to know you first as a person, respect and trust you as a person. When you get picked up at the airport you may learn that a potential client's going to his sister's wedding in 30 minutes, and that you're going with him. You might go to his child's soccer game, or spend a weekend on a seacoast villa with him before you even start to talk about a contract.

One speaker from a firm looking to do business in China said that after his team's arrival they were treated to a lavish banquet, but one of the firm's members then committed a faux paus.

"He went up to the host and asked if, tomorrow, they could be served Western food," said Hill, recounting the story. "When he went back to his hotel room after the banquet, there was an envelope under the door with a note that said a chauffeur would pick him up at 7 a.m. the next day because he was no longer welcome in their country."

Students learned that in Russia, tax forms include a line to deduct bribes. In India, speakers told students there's an "above" economy and a "below" economy.

"The above economy," Hill said, "is the signed contract the government sees to tax you on the facility, but what happens between the contractor and the owner is part of the 'below' economy, and nobody else really knows how much that is."

"One speaker told us a story about a visit in Moscow with a potential client," said Hill.

Bathhouses are a big part of Russian culture, and here he was in a bathhouse with his Russian host, getting beaten with by a bathhouse staffer with a birch broom, a common procedure that’s believed to promote one's circulation, said Hill.

"His host started speaking in Russian to the staffer, then grabbed the broom and started doing the beating himself," said Hill. His host explained that he didn't think the staffer was using enough force to get his American guest's blood circulating enough.

There are many customs the world over that are completely unknown to Americans, said Hill, and knowing them in advance can help seal a business deal.

"In Japan, if you're given a business card, you have to accept it with both hands, and you have to pretend to read it, whether you are or not, and you tuck it away nicely and present yours," he said.

In Malaysia, it's courteous to hand a merchant your money with both hands; your change is returned by the merchant with one hand, while the other cups his or her elbow: it's a custom, said Hill, from centuries ago, meaning your change-giver isn't holding a knife.

In Saudi Arabia, or any of the countries in the Middle East, said Hill, one might be walking toward a restaurant. It's a sign of friendship for a man to grab another man's hand and walk along.

"You've got to know that before you go, so you don't jerk your hand away and insult them," said Hill.

Hand gestures, he said, are better left alone.

"Forget 'Gig 'em,' said Hill. "It means too many things in different parts of the world."

In "Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World" By Roger Axtell, one learns "thumbs up" is an insult in parts of West Africa, South America, Iran, Iraq and Sardinia. In some countries in the Middle East, as well as Bangladesh and Thailand, it's an obscene gesture.

In Africa, said Hill, the "Hook-Em-Horns" sign means you're throwing a curse. "In the Mediterranean, sailors paint the sign on their ships to hold off evil spirits."

Tom Robinson, CEO of HOK, one of the world's largest design firms, told students HOK keeps lists of the customs of every country they visit, and that the firm's employees must familiarize themselves with them before they go.

"Americans generally have the most uptight culture in terms of keeping distance," said Hill.  "If you're a male in Central or South America it wouldn't be uncommon for a male client to grab you around the waist as you're moving along and chat with you."


- Posted: Nov. 20, 2009-

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