MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Writing about life as it happens, trends in career development and new inspiration

Date: October 3, 2011

Naked Manners

Back in my early 20’s I used to spend every summer at the Black Sea. I loved the sun, the fun and the somehow care-free way of living. As anywhere else, there was the family sun-bathing areas where the bikinis were mandatory, and then the less formal areas, where naked was the norm. These were the places where you could always find all the black market goods – an industry that during the communism was flourishing. This is where we would always buy the Marlborough, Kent or Viceroy cigarettes, the contraceptive pills, different brands of luxurious soaps and shampoos, and other import goods prohibited during the communist years. You can easily imagine that the naked beaches were quite crowded with people from all walks of life, looking for a bargain.

One summer, I was enjoying a beautiful vacation with my friend and her brother and sister in law. He was a doctor at one of the best hospitals in the area while his wife was a high school teacher. One day we decide to go shopping for some cigarettes. There was a particular naked beach where we could get Salem, a menthol light brand of cigarettes, meant for ladies. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I come from a very formal culture. We take pride in our manners, and make a point in showing them off. Smoking the white slim cigarettes as opposed to the stinky local brand was another way of showing our class.

You can only imagine the scene that followed shortly after getting to the place. First, as you can easily guess we were all naked, walking around the beach when my friend’s brother hears somebody calling out his name: Dr B! Surprise! And what a surprise this was! He ran into one of his former patients. Obviously, as the formal code of manners dictated, our (naked) Dr B introduced his (naked) wife to his former (naked) patient who had to respectfully bend and kiss her hand. Fortunately enough, my friend and I were a few steps behind so we watched from the distance the awkwardness of the meeting and had enough time to wipe our smiles from our faces before joining them again.

I guess, what I am trying to get out of this story is that what seems to be perfectly normal and appropriate in one instance, will be awkward and embarrassing in a different one. Learning and adapting constantly to the changes in our lives should always include our manners and the approach to a new culture, a new environment and new people.

But what do you do when you run into a client, or an acquaintance at Wreck Beach for example? Do you look the other way? Do you  nod and move on? Do you stop, shake hands and have a quick conversation? Do you introduce your naked partner?

Whatever you decide, this is what you will not do:

  • Check the other one out! Yes, I know, you are both naked, but this is not an invitation to check the other person; for men, the same rules as in the washroom apply when meeting another man.
  • Introduce your family or friends; why subject them  to some embarrassing moments? It is very easy to feel comfortable when you are among strangers, people that you do not know; as soon as we start knowing names and details about each other things change.
  • I would not recommend a hand shake either; but this is my personal preference. Not to mention hugging or kissing a lady’s hand (europeans!)

These days I am not spending any time in places like these but what would I do? I would simply wear my very dark sun glasses and pretend I haven’t seen you. Nothing personal but some things are better to be ignored than dealt with and this would make it in the top of my list!

 

 

Culture and Business Etiquette

There are manners and there is the Business Etiquette concept. You might think they are the same and what our parents taught us should serve us well in any situation. The general misconception is that knowing what fork to use and how to keep our elbows at the dinner table should be enough to prevent anybody from being embarrassed or from making a fool of themselves during a business dinner. The truth is that there is more to it than simply knowing how to use the cutlery.

Let’s think for a moment: one of the most important notions to master is networking. It is never too early to start networking; in fact, the earlier you start, the better for you. Knowing the right person weighs more than the best written and presented resume or a lifetime of achievements. Networking is basically making and keeping alliances. And being friendly, courteous, respectful, diplomatic and knowing how to manage conflict in a positive way is only the beginning of how to build them. But there is a lot to learn and every time we meet another human being, there is a 50/50 chance to make a gaffe, to step on a toe or simply to blow it. The tragedy is that real life does not provide us with too many second chances to reset and start all over again. Therefore, the more you know and practice etiquette, the better equipped you are to manage that situation in your advantage.

Cultural differences are usually at the base of most misunderstandings or miscommunications. I am under a lot of stress every time I need to host or participate to any social gathering (other than with my close friends). I come from a culture that takes its time to build relationships, and until that time when we feel comfortable enough around another person, we are very formal. We take as much time as we need to know the other person and we can not be rushed into liking somebody or pretending to. Moving to Canada, I think I have missed a million of opportunities to network by not knowing how to come out of my shell and being too stuck on titles and formality. I am still a work in progress, as knowing what to do does not necessarily translates into practising in real time.

And this is only one small example where one’s culture will definitely act against that person in a Canadian business environment. My advice for everybody: if you want  to advance, on top of your competent self, master business etiquette and the language. Having an accent will always bring an exotic charm to your persona, but there are no excuses for not speaking a grammatically correct English. As Sir Francis Bacon once said: “knowledge is power”. Before anything, take some time to study the customs, culture, and language of the place where you intend to do business, regardless if you are a fluent English speaker or economically independent.

 

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