When I teach my course on American business etiquette to multicultural audiences I get a lot of questions on appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the American workplace. Because norms vary across cultures, behavioral norms across cultures can be inappropriate, at times shocking or even legally unacceptable and subject to a law suit.
Despite the growing focus on cultural understanding during the last few decades, managing cultural differences of the international professionals and their families is often on the bottom of the priorities. The human resources professionals need to keep in mind that although many cultures have same values and concepts (e.g. punctuality, business etiquette, romantic love, and revenge) the real difference is in how they are interpreted. For instance, there is no doubt that romantic love in France will be different from romantic love in Iceland or Egypt. So, we need to keep in mind that socially acceptable behavior varies across cultures. What holds right in one society will not be so in the other.
Consider this passage by Laura Klos-Sokol, cited in R. Nolan’s excellent book “Communicating and adapting across cultures”: “Imagine a professional meeting beginning like this: a woman enters an office and introduces herself, extending her hand to shake only to have him kiss it. Next, he helps her off with her coat and takes her by the arm to usher her over to a chair three feet away. This is the Polish way: she could sue for it in the United States”.
Many times I have encountered similar behavior in my native Armenia and Russia. This was part of good manners and was considered “classy” behavior. In some cultures, males are expected to be dominant and gallant. On the other hand, when I first experienced the American “bear hug” in Armenia with a man from the US, it made me very uncomfortable and I was relieved that my fellow countrymen were not there to witness such a “frivolous” gesture.
Professionals moving to the United States must take into consideration the unspoken rules of gender interaction accepted in this country. Not knowing the rules may become traumatic and even dangerous from a legal perspective – the employer may be sued for sexual harassment. On the other hand, a female student of mine from Northern Brazil told me once how she missed that whistle of admiration (or tease, I thought) the men would produce when she would pass by.
It may be normal in some Northern Brazilian workplaces to whistle when an attractive woman will pass by. Whistle – is not something you would expect a man to do in American streets or workplace, even if you are a Sophia Loren or Miss America. Men in Italy are notorious for whistling at attractive women in such a manner that would make most American construction workers blush. … Italian, Brazilian and Armenian women may not take offense at such behavior and even take it as expression of appreciation. As a rule, professional women in the US would not appreciate it. This can be very disturbing and threatening for Northern American women and they may consider this humiliating and discriminating. As a nation, Americans are committed to equal rights for women. For this reason women are expected to be treated as equal to men.
Many countries throughout the world have sexual harassment laws in place. However, different nations have different interpretations of them. That is why I define sexual harassment as “inappropriate (from American standpoint) behavior when interacting with the opposite sex.” (Ameri$peak, Succeed in America Books, 2006, p. 66).
In business world, lack of information about etiquette and unspoken rules on gender interaction and norms can create misunderstanding crucial for an individual’s success.
To help your foreign-born employees understand behavioral norms in the US workplace
Consider the possibility that you actually have a problem. Never assume that your employees know the intricacies of gender interaction in the US or you will have a problem or even… get sued!
Think about getting a professional to conduct a training program and set expectations about American workplace culture.
 Bear hug is a rigorous, emotional embrace which signifies a greeting (the individuals’ hands embrace each other and upper parts of the body come in close contact for a second or two) -NV, see Ameri$peak update at SucceedinAmerica.com.