Question: I keep hearing about how Americans don’t know how to get along in Japan. Will learning Japanese social protocols make me a master of international relations?
Each national culture has its own quirks that have to be learned from direct experience. I discovered almost by accident that rapping a ruler on a table will cause a boisterous roomful of German executives to immediately sit up straight and pay attention. It’s a Pavlovian response.
The great thing about the ruler thing was, it worked for me even as a woman who was not an executive. They were actually a little bit scared! Maybe it reached deep into some forgotten corner of the German psyche where childhood schoolteachers still held sway.
People talk about body language in different cultures, especially hand gestures. That’s important, but what I’m saying is, you have to go deeper than bowing or handing out business cards. You have to step into cultural memes that are imprinted on your audience from the time they were small. I think each culture has its own set of “characters”, and you have to learn which ones you can employ convincingly.
This works better in person. I can’t imagine the ruler thing working over a phone meeting or even a video conference. Also, some may be gender-specific or age-specific. No matter what your position, though, you can find some cultural trigger to use to your advantage.
Remember also that alcohol is the universal solvent that erases all boundaries.