Knowing how far you can go too far, in familiarity, can mean different things in different cultures. There was the big ‘goof up’ made by president Johnson of the USA, when he bowed low (he was very tall) to kiss the queen of Thailand on the cheek. This is never done in Thailand. The ‘face’ is considered sacred. And more than that, it was the queen!
There was my own ‘goof up’, when I did not know that I had to receive the Japanese guest at ’the same level’. I had waited outside the restaurant, but I was standing one step above, when I began talking to him to greet him. My guest was greatly annoyed and, in fact, agitated. Although he tried to hide his anger, I could feel that he was furious. This was one of the situations that prompted me to write my book World Passport for Global Managers - to help other managers who travel around the world on their work or even on their holidays.
There are situations in the East where people stand close to each other, and do not mind it. In the West, they keep their distance, based on their relationship. There are Americans who address you by your first name at the first meeting, and you can do likewise. And there are also the English and the Germans who I have known for many years and are still ‘Mr’ or ‘Herr’ to me, and I to them. There is never any limit to learning when and how to be familiar, in different cultures, and in different situations.
When you have known a colleague or business associate for a long time, many questions would seem to be genuine enquiries rather than crude intrusions. Yet, even in an association of many years, there is a need to distinguish between being friendly and being familiar. Unfortunately, many executives are not able to differentiate clearly. This can cause much discomfort and many problems - like this one…
Mr Desai rang me up at 7am one morning. I was half asleep when I picked up the telephone. ‘Good morning Walter’ he said, ‘I am Desai from Bolt Cloth Company, and a friend of Gopal Sharma, whom you know. I am looking for an assignment as general manager, and Gopal suggested that I speak to you. I am presently at Bolt but I am not very happy there. Do you have any appropriate vacancies right now, Walter?’
I was simmering within. Mr Desai was using an aggressive tone. He talked as if I owed him a job. He had taken the liberty to phone me at my residence, and at 7 in the morning.
I asked him- “Have I met you before?” “No,” he replied, “But I have heard of you.”
So I told him that I assumed that we had met before, because he had addressed me by my first name, as if we had known each other for a long time. Anyway, he could now send his biodata and our placement company would see what they could do to place him in an appropriate slot. There was a long silence. Then he said he would do as I had suggested. Three months later, he had still not sent his papers!
Mr Desai had overstepped the limits of being friendly and had acted familiar. He had pushed me into putting my guard up. In the process, Mr Desai lost a contact, and perhaps, also lost a career opportunity.
Acting familiar manifests itself in many ways - in the manner of slapping someone on the back; or in the way someone shakes hands and perhaps, keeps shaking it when the other person wants to withdraw; or straight away going into a hug. It may even be in the manner of tone, pitch or (sitting) posture.
It may be in the way of written communication, by someone you have met once and briefly - say on business three years ago, who writes to you to ask for a favour and addresses you as ‘My dear Walter’!
Someone else I had met two years ago, socially and never again, calls me. When I pick up the phone, the secretary tells me, “Hold on Mr Vieira, Mr Rao wants to speak to you but he is busy on another line. Please hold on.”
They are taking the liberty that comes only with familiarity, when there is not even a trace of friendship!
All of us have a very small circle of people with whom we can display ‘familiarity’. There is a larger circle of ‘friends’ and an even larger circle of’ ‘acquaintances’. We need to know where to draw the line, and yet, the line is never clearly drawn.
Drawing such distinctions, and acting accordingly, requires both judgement and tact. This tact comprises of ‘knowing how far you can go too far’.
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are ‘Marketing in a Digital/Data World’ with Brian Almeida and ‘Customer Value Starvation Can Kill’ with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India