Why “Wai,” McDonald’s?
If you do your research, your franchise can avoid most faux pas.
By Terri Morrison
Before you greet clients in Copenhagen, Cairo or Chiang Mai, consider which behaviors can be construed as rude or even illegal. Your goal is to establish rapport and credibility in the first few seconds, so get your greetings right.
McDonald’s is known for modifying meals to dovetail with local tastes, but their cultural awareness covers more than condiments in Thailand. As I rode up the escalator in Chiang Mai airport, a life-sized Ronald McDonald caught my eye. Along with his hearty grin, he was bowing slightly, with his hands clasped in front of him. Ronald was performing a “wai!” A “wai” is used to greet, express thanks, show respect or say goodbye in Thailand. I stopped to snap a photo of the corporate icon adapting to traditional Thai beliefs, and noticed I wasn’t the only one — parents were taking photos of their children emulating him. Ronald was ruling that corner of Chiang Mai!
McDonald’s is evidently aware that greetings vary greatly around the world. Some cultures definitely disapprove of members of the opposite sex touching each other in public. Understanding this can help make your prospects relax and be comfortable in the first few seconds of a client visit. Here are several tips to help you avoid some of the most egregious errors.
Read their lips. A kiss is not just a kiss.
Because “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” is the title of several of my books, I am often the (fortunate) recipient of kisses from total strangers in the United States. They use the book title almost like an icebreaker — it gives them a perfect entrée for a warm greeting. “Les bises,” “un beso” or “un bacio,” phrases that refer to a kiss, often occur in France, Spain, Italy and much of Latin America as well. But in other regions of the world, I am exceedingly careful about touching my hosts. Even an air kiss can cross over from being merely awkward to alarming.
Never make the same mistake that Richard Gere did during an AIDS benefit in Mumbai several years ago. He dramatically “dipped” and kissed an Indian starlet named Shilpa Shetty. It was a typical theatrical gesture that would have played well in Hollywood, but Hindus thought it was insulting and took umbrage. Protests erupted, arrest warrants were issued for them both, and Gere and Shetty were hung in effigy.
Countries where displays of public affection between genders are frowned upon for religious or traditional reasons include:
India, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Sri Lanka and other primarily Hindu or Buddhist nations
In these cultures, executives may shake hands, or greet each other with a “Namaste” or a “Wai.” Both of the latter gestures involve placing one’s hands in a praying position, and raising them to the proper height in front of the face or head.
Theocracies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Israel
In a theocracy, God tells you what to do. Both observant Muslims and orthodox Jews are prohibited from touching the opposite gender in public.
China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of Asia.
Although multiple Chinese presidents have received hugs from exuberant Westerners, your best bet is to offer a brief bow of the head, and a reasonable (not heart-stopping) handshake. In the United States and most of Northern Europe, a firm grip has long been an indicator of strength of character, but in much of Asia, a gentle, extended grip is normal and doesn’t reflect negotiating strength. Follow your host’s lead.
Germany, Austria, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands
These countries consider business to be a serious endeavor and view humor or physical affection as a frivolous waste of time at work. This may explain why during a G8 meeting in 2006, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, reflexively shrugged off former President George W. Bush’s advances when he attempted to give her a little shoulder massage.
Stand up straight, chest out, head up, hands at your sides!
Many nationalities are known for their excellent posture (Germans, French, Japanese), but a straight back is not the only criteria for a good greeting.
When Bill Gates went to South Korea in 2013, it wasn’t just his posture and open jacket that made headlines all over the country. Gates has a habit of leaving his left hand in his pocket when he shakes hands. That may fly in Seattle, but unfortunately, it looked very disrespectful when he shook hands with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. The headlines blared: “An open jacket with hand in pocket? Way too casual!” And the Secretary General of South Korea’s National Assembly Chung Jin-suk stated, “It was very regretful.”
Of course, if you are one of the wealthiest people on earth, you can afford to be a little quirky too.
Three Publicity Faux Pas
Beyond the initial greetings, there are a multitude of behaviors, topics and images you should circumvent. Here are three publicity faux pas to avoid:
- Political Topics or Graphics
Your marketing collateral and website design should be vetted by a local representative in each country to ensure you have not included any insulting topics or images. It may seem innocuous to you, such as a map, but if it shows disputed territory (e.g.: the Spratly Islands — claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam) — you may end up as a lively hashtag on Twitter. Many websites have been totally banned in China and the Middle East for politically incorrect content.
- Religious Symbols or Content
Different religious belief systems have different prohibitions. Here are just a few symbols that require care:
- The flag of Saudi Arabia. The name of Allah appears on their flag, so it must be handled with extreme care. It cannot be associated with any promotional items, it is never flown at half mast, etc.
- Alcohol and pork products. Never include any images of these in your materials if the ads will appear in Islamic countries. When TNT debuted in Indonesia, Ted Turner pulled Porky Pig from their initial Warner Brothers’ cartoon lineup.
- Images of the Buddha. Travelers with tattoos of Buddha have been turned away at the airport in Sri Lanka (tattoos can be controversial in other Asian countries as well, such as Japan).
- Images of Animals or the Human Figure
- Not all animals are universally beloved. Although they are incredibly popular in western advertisements, dogs are not always just mascots. You may still find them on the menu in Asia. And in much of the Middle East, dogs are considered unclean and are not used in business collateral.
- Images of humans are generally prohibited in Saudi Arabia, which abides by the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. This took a rather interesting turn during the winter of 2015 when northern Saudi Arabia experienced an uncommonly heavy snowfall, and a prominent Saudi cleric used his website to warn believers against building snowmen.
Clearly, people around the world are not alike. Different cultures have different customs, priorities, ways of thinking and negotiating. If you do your research, your franchise can avoid most faux pas, and you will have an advantage over those who will never know why Thais “wai.”
Terri Morrison is co-author of nine books, including “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries.” Find her at TerriMorrison@getcustoms.com.