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As the world shrinks, leaders are expected to lead teams consisting of professional people living and working in cultures spread around the globe. As a result, inevitably and innocently, cultural differences cause misunderstanding.

I can illustrate how easily this can happen with just a few examples. Below are nine gestures, expression, and behaviors that can get a leader into hot water. There are many, many more. But let’s start somewhere.

  1. chinese deathNever give gifts in groups of four in China.
  2. Doing so suggests bad luck, because the word for “four” is similar to the word for “death.”

  3. okay gestureNever use this gesture in Brazil.
  4. It’s an insult to some men’s masculinity.


  5. eat right handNever eat with your left hand in the Middle East.
  6. It’s taboo. The left hand is reserved for bathroom duty.

  7. business card two handsNever write on the business card of someone from Japan.
  8. Always offer and accept cards with both hands and treat them with respect.

  9. men hands in pocketsNever stand with your hands in your pockets in Russia.
  10. It’s considered rude.

  11. v sign squareNever use this gesture in Australia.
  12. It’s an insult equivalent to the finger in the United States.

  13. sacred cow indiaNever wear leather in India.
  14. Some Hindus revere the cow, the source of leather.

  15. woman muslim handA woman must never offer to shake hands with a pious Muslim man.
  16. The Quran forbids men to make physical contact with women other than family.

  17. woman slap manA man must never offer a woman a ride in the UK.
  18. The word “ride” refers to the sex act. Offer her a lift.

So what’s a global leader to do?

The cultural landscape doesn’t have to be a minefield of potential missteps. Here are four things you can do right now to navigate the world as safely as possible.

  • Ask about what you don’t understand or what to do when you’re not sure.
  • Paraphrase what you think you understand someone has said or suggested, especially if you have any doubt or if something sounds out of the ordinary to you.
  • Explain yourself thoroughly and carefully until you feel more confident that you are being clearly understood.
  • Get some help from a third party whom you and your business associate trust.


Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.