Cross Cultural Business Communication: Holding Hands

Many years ago, I found myself in a foreign city at a conference, spending a few minutes on my company’s booth, when all over sudden a man walks up, grabs my hand, leads me to a display on our booth and starts asking questions about my company and our products. All the while, for the next 10 minutes, he continues to hold my hand.


What was I supposed to do? All kind of thoughts went through my head:

  • When is he going to let go of my hand?
  • Should I pull my hand back?
  • I was so confused I had a really difficult time answering his questions

Over the years I had grown to accept the two basic rules of international business:

  1. The visitor is expected to understand the local customs.
  2. The seller is expected to cater to the buyer.

I had clearly forgotten rule number 1. I did not learn about the culture of the foreign county where te convention was held. I did not understand this local custom and it freaked me out. Luckily rule number 2. kicked in and I did not withdraw my hand.


But I am sure the gentleman noticed I was uncomfortable. He was kind enough not to take offense.


This happened to me at a law enforcement convention in Africa organized by InterPol. I was there representing Motorola. A high-level administrator of an African country’s police force wanted to know more about Motorola’s product offerings and how we could help his country improve its emergency responder’s communications network.


At the time, when this happened, I thought I was a seasoned multi-cultural executive. I had done business in every continent. I had so many miles I flew first class anywhere I wanted to go. So, it came as a real shock to me to learn that I was not at all the expert I thought I was. Since I have paid more attention to cultural differences, and I have learned that there is much more to learn.


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