London is officially ready to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. There will be 205 countries participating in the Games this year—that’s 205 different ways to greet one another, 205 ways to show triumph and, conversely, 205 ways to show despair. Or put another way, it’s 15,000 athletes and millions of spectators all trying to communicate with one another.
Cultural theories and frameworks abound on the topic of cross-cultural communication, but here is a lighthearted survival kit for anyone who wants to enjoy the experience to the fullest:
1) Let’s get this one out of the way. British nationals can come across as a bit dour. We’re not. We are just a lot more reserved than some of you hot-blooded Mediterranean nationalities or gung-ho Americans. And we are not the only culture that is that way. Watch the celebrations closely as different nationalities take the medals – you will see hugging, jumping, bowing, and clapping. They all mean the same thing – joy and triumph!
2) Twice, thrice, or not at all? Cheek-kissing in greeting is a minefield. In many cultures, particularly in Eastern Europe or Latin America, light kisses on the cheek are commonplace as a sign of greeting or affection beyond familial relationships and regardless of sex. So how to handle it? Let your greeter take the lead. Although the number of kisses can be up to four in some countries, two is probably enough. You don’t want to miss the entire men’s 100-metre dash, now do you?
3) If you’re happy and you know it …. Did you know that even a simple smile can mean different things in different cultures? In some Asian cultures, a smile might be masking another emotion such as discomfort. For Russians, smiling at a stranger can be perceived as impolite, yet Americans are quite comfortable smiling at everyone. As with all cultural interactions, look to the context for cues on how to respond appropriately.
4) A friend is for life … not just for the Olympics! Sharing the Olympic experience will open the door for friendships that had never been imagined and the following “peach and coconut” analogy will be very helpful here. To wit: Some cultures, like the British, are like coconuts, with a tough exterior. It takes time to get to know us but once we do form friendships, they are deep and long-lasting. Other cultures, such as the Americans, are more peach-like. They are softies who bond quickly and with many people, based on commonality, but they do keep part of themselves back for only the most special people in their lives. Remember that as you Tweet, text, or FB your new BF!
Above all, though, remember that no culture is right and no culture is wrong, and at the end of the day, this will be a spectacle to be savoured!