Do's and taboo's for making foreign guests welcome

Hosts adjusting for Different Cultures lblackford@herald-leader.comJune 1, 2010 

  • Taboos

    ■ In Iran, yellow flowers symbolize hate or the enemy. In Mexico, yellow flowers represent death.

    ■ In Japan, black and white are considered too mournful to use as colors for gift wrapping.

    ■ Gifts for Western Europeans should not have a large or obtrusive logo.

    ■ Instead of shaking hands with a Muslim woman, place your hand on your chest and bow.

    ■ Muslim Halal dietary restrictions prohibit pork, alcohol or any animal killed inhumanely without proper thanks to Allah.

    ■ Many cultures have a different concept of personal space and stand much closer than Americans when talking.

    ■ In Germany, giving flowers in even numbers is considered bad luck.

  • Tickets in the states

    These states have bought the most tickets for WEG.

    1. Kentucky

    2. California

    3. Ohio

    4. Texas

    5. Florida

    6. Michigan

    7. Illinois

    8. Virginia

    9. New York

    10. Indiana

    Foreign guests

    These countries have bought the most tickets.

    1. Canada

    2. Australia

    3. England

    4. South Africa

    5. Mexico

    6. Germany

    7. New Zealand

    8. Venezuela

    9. France

    10. Columbia

Ambassadors, royalty and mere commoners from around the world will be making their way to Lexington for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in the fall, and Games officials want to be ready.

Hosting foreign guests brings its own set of rules and requirements. You shouldn't give a guest from Italy chrysanthemums because they're considered funeral flowers or wrap a gift in black or white paper because it sends a mournful message to Japanese visitors or serve pork or shellfish to guests from many cultures.

Mary Wathen, director of community relations and foreign protocol for the World Games Foundation, said that for her staff, the term VIP has a new meaning: "Very Individual Person." Whether it's Sheikh Mohammed or a member of the British royal family, guests for the Games will bring different expectations and requirements.

Wathen will be working with about 150 highly trained volunteers who will help smooth the way for VIPs from the moment they arrive in Lexington until they leave.

"We'll have a process in place to make sure it all works very smoothly," Wathen said. Flexibility is the key, Wathen said, because officials probably won't know exactly who is coming until the last minute.

"It is intense," she said. "We want to do it right."

The volunteers will be trained in all the niceties of general protocol and etiquette and will work with the Protocol Officers Association to get advice from people who do this kind of work for a living. Wathen said many of the volunteers will work as one-on-one hosts for foreign VIPs, charged with researching their guests' culture and anticipating their needs.

"I think the greatest challenge is the number of details," said Sonia Garza Monarchi, a board member of the association and owner of Garza Protocol Associates in Houston.

"Every single element of the visitors trip is important — that airport courtesies are extended, that people feel welcome from the moment they touch the ground ... everything has to be coordinated."

Abiding by our customs

But Carey Cavanaugh, a diplomat under President George W. Bush and director of the University of Kentucky's Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce, said international protocol means people must abide by local customs.

"The most important thing is that most of the rules about protocol are for when you are going there," he said.

While avoiding big mistakes and not insulting anyone is important, Cavanaugh said, most international visitors expect to follow the local norms. With an event like the Games, Cavanaugh said, there are people coming from so many countries it is best to just abide by a general protocol of Southern hospitality.

People who are concerned about making a mistake may miss out on sharing the local culture.

"It wouldn't really be an interesting trip if you came and everybody was on edge — that's not what Kentucky is about," he said.

Matt Madden, program manager for the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana, spoke with Lexington business owners at a Meeting Professionals International event last week and said preparing for an event like the Games is all about the small things.

"The best thing about Kentucky is our hospitality, and how we show that is to really focus on the little nuances," he said.

But even without research, Cavanaugh said, foreign faux pas can be avoided by taking cues from the visitor. For those unsure about what physical contact is appropriate, let the guest make the first move and just be aware of their body language.

"If the person extends their hand, it's safe to shake their hand. If they have their hands folded and close to their body, they are telling you they are not comfortable with that," Cavanaugh said.

'Do's and taboos'

Aileen Hawes, a public relations specialist for UPS who also spoke at the Meeting Professionals even, said international visits are all about the "do's and taboo's." Hawes said Americans can relate to some cultural differences, such as colors or numbers.

"In some countries, numbers are important. Like how 13 is unlucky to us, in some cultures it is three or four, so you don't want to give things in that number," she said.

Food is always a question when dealing with international guests, Madden said. Guests from Islamic countries may require a Halal diet, while Jewish religious tenets require a Kosher diet. And alcohol may be a touchy subject for a number of cultures.

But beyond religious restrictions, Hawes said, other cultures are more in tune with American customs and may want to share in them.

"A lot of international folks are becoming more accustomed to American ways — they may want to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken."

Taking the time to research other cultures leaves an impression, Madden said.

"If you have Islamic guests, offer them the opportunity to go to the mosque. If you have visitors from a more Catholic-oriented country, offer them the chance to go to Mass. It will mean a lot to them."

And leaving a lasting impression is what Wathen hopes to do. She said building lasting relationships and creating economic development opportunities are primary reasons Lexington is preparing to keep guests comfortable.

After all, Garza Monarchi said, the result of all these efforts should be economic development. Someone who remembers Kentucky fondly might think much more seriously about doing business here.

"You're going to have prominent officials from all over the world, you want to make sure everyone is safe and has a good time," she said. "But what your city leaders really want to accomplish is to promote the city and the area and turn that into economic development opportunities."

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