Interaction through an interpreter is often necessary when entertaining a client who does not speak English. The language barrier, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. It is important to keep in mind that the cultural norms and customs can be different from our own as well. The degree to which certain interactions are acceptable or offensive may differ between countries and regions. Often, your interpreter will be an excellent source of information of how to interact with your client appropriately.
In Arabic countries, close social interaction and casual touching are very common among same gender acquaintances. Physical touches are encouraged during interactions, including holding hands.
Appearing distant, reserved, quiet, or shy may indicate that someone is weak in a culture where enthusiastic, passionate, and even aggressive conversations are considered a show of strength.
Interactions between opposite gender individuals are more regulated. In Saudi Arabia it is considered offensive to ask about the wellbeing of any female family members. Meanwhile, it would be rude not to ask about the health and happiness of male family members such as brothers, uncles, cousins, and sons throughout a conversation. Strong eye contact is encouraged between same gender individuals, but anything more than a brief glance between genders is deemed inappropriate. Similarly, casual touching between the sexes (outside of immediate family) is offensive. For example, many Arab men won’t even shake hands with female Western business associates.
Latin American countries refer to those countries in the Americas whose primary language is derived from Latin, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and French. These cultures have retained many similarities in body languages and gestures. For example, personal space distances tend to be small. In Puerto Rico, many may find standing at arm’s length offensive.
Interactions also tend to be very touch oriented. In Mexico, touching the forearm, elbow, and pats on the back are common during conversations. In Colombia the frequency of touching increases as a friendship develops but would be toned down at first meeting. In Argentina, hugs and pecks on the cheek upon greeting are expected. Gestures and touch are very important when having a friendly conversation in Haiti, however, it is inappropriate for men and women to hug.
In many Spanish speaking countries, a hug or a kiss on the cheek regardless of gender is expected upon greeting.
However, Haitians have stricter interactions between genders; it is inappropriate to show affection in public with someone of the opposite gender. In contrast, same-gender individuals will hold hands and kiss each other on the cheek.
In many Asian cultures, such as the Chinese, people prefer larger degrees of personal space, and it’s unacceptable when greeting someone to go beyond a simple handshake. This often includes close friends and family members. However, during handshakes, many people from Asian cultures linger and often hold the hand after a handshake is over.
Body language and gestures in Asian cultures reflect the mentality of the wider culture. Direct, unbroken eye contact is considered aggressive and confrontational. However, staring or gaping at something or someone is not rude but simply displays curiosity (for example, in China).
Do not pat anyone on the head, especially a child. It is a gateway to the soul and any damage that occurs to the child in the future can be blamed on that transgression. However, being invited to touch the head, especially by a parent of a child, means that that person has gained a huge amount of trust and respect.
There are also differences within Asian cultures. For example, it is common to bow in Japan. The deeper the bow, the more respect shown the other person. In China, bowing may have been traditional but now it is rarely done, reserved for when meeting high ranking government officials or someone you hold in especially high esteem. Even then, a slight bow of the head is expected rather than the deeper bows, as expected in Japan.
Bowing in South Korea is still practiced and is often accompanied by a handshake (especially among men) where the right forearm should be supported by the left hand. Korean women will nod slightly but not shake hands. However, Western women may shake hands with Korean men but not Korean women.