Service as a Citizen of the World


Many of us enjoy doing business with people from countries, ethnicities, and backgrounds that are different from our own. This brings into our lives, and the lives of those we serve, a wonderful sense of the colorful, cultural, and amazing world in which we live and work.

This colorful combination is also loaded with opportunities to accidentally misstep or inadvertently create negative impressions. Since our definition of service is “taking action to create value for someone else”, then service can enhanced when we are conscious of others’ backgrounds and their cultures, and the manner in which they prefer to be served.

Let me tell you a story from my own background, and how I accidentally offended the host from one of my most influential clients (this was before my time with Uplifting Service).

I was in Taipei, Taiwan. I had not traveled internationally much for business, and this was my first time in Taiwan. I was visiting the offices of a major product manufacturer. I had done business together with my contact person for over a year via email, but this was our first face-to-face meeting. My married last name is Ihara, which is Japanese, and can be a bit misleading as I am actually a tall, native born, Caucasian American.

The dilemma began when I was offered a beverage – a sweet, sugary fruit drink in a can. I follow a careful eating regime and would have been very happy with water, so I declined the fruit drink. I was offered a bottle of soda, which I also declined. Uh-oh… you can see where this is going.

Had I been smart (and culturally sensitive), I would have accepted the fruit drink, opened the can, and let it sit idle on the table. But I wasn’t sensitive or smart. The third drink offered was a small box of milk – the kind that can sit on a shelf for years and still be consumable. Oh dear, not a good situation. I did accept the milk box, but didn’t open it. And this whole episode clearly offended my host. Fortunately my error was forgiven, but not before I received a “look” from my host that I remember until this day.

It was a difficult lesson to learn, yet it opened my eyes to the amazing world of cultural etiquette. Even today I am extremely grateful. I will not make the same mistake again, and this experience created an excitement to learn much more.

As a woman in Senior Management in America, I have learned to lead with a firm hand-shake, make direct eye contact, use open communication, and show a genuine interest in the lives of those with whom I interact. I genuinely like people, and am really fond of most of those with whom I do business. I enthusiastically greet my associates, often, with a hug (male, or female!). This direct approach works very well for me in the United States. But as you can imagine, this behavior is not appropriate for all the regions and cultures of our very diverse world.

As you read this, you may have your own thoughts about how this approach would be received in the culture where you work, or where you grew up.

And it’s not just race and gender that contribute to the diversity in our world. We are also a world filled with differences in age, language, religion, physical abilities, dietary preferences, social standards, legal frameworks, business practices and more.

But this exploration doesn’t need to be a minefield. With some basic courtesies and considerations you can serve others in a considerate manner that is appreciated by all of your customers and service partners.

I hope to open up dialogue here since this blog is also a global messenger. You have a funny story as awkward as mine. Perhaps yours is funny, or more serious. It would be wonderful to hear from you about the customs and cultures where you work and live – and the times when you accidentally made a misstep or two. Your sharing could be incredibly valuable to others reading this blog. We can learn from our mistakes, and we can learn from each other.

Categories: Service Culture
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7 Responses

  1. Michael Chan says:

    I worked in the civil service in Singapore for years. In the civil service, receiving gifts is a big no-no. I carried that attitude with me when I first stepped into China. I was (and still am) in the international education business and some Taiwanese and Korean parents gave me gifts on our first meeting, which I declined. They never spoke to me again, and I only found out why from my students (their children).

    Today, nearly 8 years later, I receive gifts enthusiastically, and thank them profusely for their thoughtful gesture (pens, tea, mugs are common gifts). My relationship with the Parents Association has never been any better!

  2. VR says:

    Cultural sensitivity has been talked about for such a long time now – you’ve got to be a hermit if you still engage with other cultures without adequate preparation or try to “wing it” blindly. As when entering into a business negotiation, strategy planning exercise or indeed, any other reasonably important activity, prior study and planning is always a must. Knowing who your counterparts are, what they like/dislike, what their cultural norms are, where their sensitivities lie etc. are part of this prep process. Ignore this at your own peril. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt in this regard relates to shedding my own “ego” and sense of what’s “right” or “wrong” (and I’m not talking ethics here…just behaviour) and instead being respectful or open to the cultural norms of my counterparts. Making them feel good at that point of time makes a lot more sense than feeding my own ego or fuelling my own self-belief. Isn’t that “Service” after all?

  3. Hans Mudde says:

    Be careful in the utilization of jokes. Laughing between people is very relaxing although if you are using jokes it can go wrong. Certain jokes even cannot be translated in a proper way and also certain jokes can be misinterpreted by the audience.

  4. Norman Lieber says:

    Many years ago in the UK we had various family functions (any excuse for a good dinner and dance afair) and besides family and friends we often invited business aquaintences, of which a couple of the companies had Japanese staff.
    In our wisdom on the table arrangements we thought putting all the Japanese couples on the same table. Apparently we learned afterwards that we should have put each couple on a different table with our UK people as they preferred to interact rather than be grouped together.

  5. Dan Haygeman says:

    I had the opportunity to spend a couple of years presenting to audiences in the UK and France. In the UK, I had been briefed that the audience had a fairly hostile undercurrent for people from the United States based especially on a number of U.S. people in their company who seemed to ‘know it all’. Accordingly, when I got my first chance to present, I expressed some of my genuine appreciation for the opportunity, and suggested that, while I might have some value to offer, perhaps there were a number in the audience thinking “now what could an American possibly have to offer?”

    In France, I didn’t have the same good fortune. . . and the room seemed like an ice chest with the door locked. Nothing I could say or do could move the people in the audience to engage with me or the material. . . until the lunch break. A colleague of mine went back to his hotel and got several CDs of popular French music. . . instead of the wildly popular U.S. hits I had been playing for the breaks. Not only was the music great, but the audience started to lean in a bit and participate. . . which got better and better over the course of our engagement. I had brought music I liked. . . my colleague brought music they liked. Simple.

    Dan H.

  6. Andrea says:

    Thank you all for your wonderful stories. Both the stories of what worked, and those of what **didn’t** are insightful.

    Each of us, as members of the human race, make mistakes (hopefully none too serious, or offensive). What I have learned as an adult is that the mistake isn’t usually the problem, but how we correct it (or don’t!) might be. If we own our mistakes, can laugh at ourselves, and make amends, often great friendships (and funny stories) are the result.


  7. Fawziah Mukhtar says:

    I worked in a Statuory Board and I can really relate to Michael Chan’s experience. Receiving gifts from others is definitely a no no in our organisation but I have learnt, albeit, the hard way is that it is not polite to refuse a gift.
    I guess I have since received gifts from various counterparts and declared it to my Organisation to decide on the status of it.
    To me, it is a win win situation whereby we do not offend anyone who is really geniune about giving something from the heart.

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