Last week, Bill Gates was visiting South Korea where he met with Korean President Park Geun-hye. When they met, Gates shook her hand while his left hand stayed in his pocket. In Korea, the hand-in-pocket handshake is considered extremely rude and offensive. Call it an error in etiquette, politeness or decorum: the worldwide media picked up the gaffe and major news outlets in the U.S. highlighted the story.
Coming from the very informal technology sector, perhaps Gates didn’t think anything of the hand-in-pocket. But after the media highlighted the incident, Park’s office felt compelled to comment on the handshake with an official statement downplaying the gesture as being an “American style of greeting.” (Thank goodness for American culture that Gates didn’t commit a faux pas of accidentally sneezing on the president or unwittingly pick at his nose.)
Gates presumably spent a lot of time and energy in organizing the trip. He was apparently promoting a new startup. But the incident, while having caused offense to the Korean people, also created a feeling among them that he had something to hide, symbolized by the hidden hand. His intended message was overshadowed by what is probably an innocent or nervous habit. It is a classic example of why it’s important to learn and be sensitive to foreign culture and etiquette when doing business abroad.
Have you been subject to or committed a cultural faux pas when doing business in a foreign country? I would love to hear your experience!