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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

Touch Taboo

Britain, along with much of Northern Europe and the Far East, is classed as a “non-contact” culture, in which there’s very little physical contact in people’s daily interactions. Even the slightest accidental touch in public unleashes a flurry of “I’m so sorry - no I'M so sorry".

By comparison, in the high-contact cultures of the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and southern Europe, physical touch is a big part of socialising. It’s also very common in crowded places such as markets, trains and buses. If you've ever been on the Tokyo subway in rush-hour you'll know what I mean.

What’s more, there are different rules about who touches whom and where. In much of the Arab world, men commonly hold hands and kiss each other in greeting, but would never do the same with a woman who was not a close relative. I recall a very long and difficult dispute I was involved in in Egypt. Our client was a Government Ministry, and their representative Mr A was an imperious elderly Egyptian gentleman who delighted in intimidating suppliers – especially Europeans. Everyone was scared of Mr A - especially the "no-contact-please-we're-British" types. I was warned that I would be "grabbed" and there was even a suggestion that Mr A got some sexual pleasure out of this physical contact. I recall that the first time I met Mr A for sweet mint tea in his site office he gripped my knee very firmly while discussing an issue that had roused his passion. I neither pushed him off. Nor did I show any discomfort whatsoever. We soon built up a degree of trust that meant we could effectively communicate, and even settle some difficult commercial issues.

In Thailand and Laos, it is taboo to touch anyone’s head, even a child. In South Korea, elderly people can touch younger people with force when necessary, such as when trying to get through a crowd, but younger people can’t do the same.

In France it is common for men and women (and men and men) to kiss each other once on each cheek when meeting socially - this may even happen in some office environments. I knew a CFO of a French company who went around the floor where his office was every morning to shake hands with all his subordinates. This would be unthinkable in Finland.

Naturally, these different standards of contact can lead to misunderstandings. An Argentinian may see a Scandinavian as cold and aloof, while the Scandinavian may see the Argentinian as pushy and presumptuous.

Always keep these different approaches to physical contact in mind when in negotiation, and especially when mediating.


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